Escape from New York is a 1981 American science fiction action film co-written, co-scored, and directed by John Carpenter. The film is set in a then-near future 1997 in a crime-ridden United States that has converted Manhattan Island in New York City into a maximum security prison. Ex-soldier Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is given 22 hours to find the President of the United States, who has been captured by prisoners after the crash of Air Force One.
Carpenter wrote the film in the mid-1970s as a reaction to the Watergate scandal, but proved incapable of articulating how the film related to the scandal. After the success of Halloween, he had enough influence to get the film made and shot most of it in St. Louis, Missouri. The film is co-written with Nick Castle, who already collaborated with Carpenter previously by portraying Michael Myers in the 1978 film Halloween.
The film's total budget was estimated to be $6 million. It was a commercial hit, grossing $25,244,700. It has since become a cult film. A sequel, Escape from L.A., was released in 1996, with Carpenter returning along with Russell, now also acting as producer and co-writer.
In 1988, crime in the United States increased 400%, so the island of Manhattan was isolated from the rest of New York City and turned into a giant maximum-security prison in which all inmates serve life sentence (prisoners escorted inside cannot be released). A 50-foot (15 m) containment wall surrounds the island and many of Manhattan's bridges and tunnels have either been destroyed or covered with mines to prevent anyone absconding from the prison. The surrounding waters are patrolled and no civilians, even prison guards, are allowed to set foot on the island.
In 1997, during the Third World War, (which escalated from the Cold War) while traveling to a three-way peace summit between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists. The plane crashes into Manhattan, but the President (Donald Pleasence) makes it to an escape pod and survives. The inmates take him hostage and order all recovery forces to leave Manhattan immediately and to release them, or the President will be executed live.
Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) offers a deal to special forces soldier turned criminal "Snake" Plissken (Kurt Russell): If Snake rescues the President and retrieves a secret cassette tape that the President has within 24 hours, Hauk will give him a full pardon. When Plissken reluctantly agrees to attempt the rescue, Hauk has him injected with microscopic explosives that will rupture his carotid arteries within 24 hours. The explosives can only be defused in the last 15 minutes before they detonate, ensuring that Snake does not abandon his mission. If he returns with the President and the tape in time for the summit, Hauk will save him from his death.
Snake is escorted by guards to the wall, landing atop the World Trade Center in a stealth glider and locating the plane wreckage and escape pod. He tracks the President's life-monitor bracelet signal to a theater, only to find it on the wrist of an old man. He meets an inmate nicknamed "Cabbie" (Ernest Borgnine), who has a modified cab, and who takes Snake to see Harold "Brain" Hellman (Harry Dean Stanton), who has made the New York Public Library his personal fortress with inmates to protect it.
Brain, who knows Snake, tells him that the self-proclaimed "Duke of New York" (Isaac Hayes), has the President and plans to lead a mass escape across the mined and heavily guarded 69th Street Bridge, using the President as a human shield. Snake forces Brain and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) to lead him to the Duke's compound at Grand Central Station. Snake finds the President in a railroad car, but he is captured by the Duke's men.
While Snake is forced to fight with a prisoner named Slag (Ox Baker), Brain and Maggie trick the Duke's right-hand man Romero (Frank Doubleday) into letting them see the President. Once inside, they kill Romero and the guards, free the President, and flee. When the Duke learns this, he is furious and rounds up his gang to chase them down, desperate to leave Manhattan. In the confusion, Snake slips away and manages to catch up with Brain, Maggie, and the President. After a group of crazies cuts the ropes on Snake's glider and push it off the top of the World Trade Center, the group heads back down and encounters Cabbie, who offers to take them across the bridge in his cab. When Cabbie reveals that he has the secret tape, the President demands it, but Snake takes it.
With the Duke chasing in another car, Snake and the others drive over the mine-strewn bridge. The cab is destroyed by a land mine and Cabbie is killed. As they flee on foot, Brain is killed by a mine and Maggie refuses to leave him, taking Snake's gun and firing several shots at the Duke's approaching car before he runs her over. Snake and the President reach the wall and the guards raise the President on a rope. The Duke kills the guards and attacks Snake, but the President shoots the Duke dead with an assault rifle. Snake is lifted to safety and the explosives are deactivated with seconds to spare.
As the President prepares for a televised speech, he thanks Snake for saving him. Snake asks him how he feels about the people who died saving his life, but the President only offers half-hearted regret to Snake's disgust. Hauk offers Snake a job, but Snake declines to answer and walks away. The President's speech commences and he offers the content of the cassette to the summit; but to the President's humiliation, the tape has been switched for Cabbie's cassette containing the swing song Bandstand Boogie. Snake receives his pardon and leaves the prison, tearing the tape from the real cassette.