It is hard to overstate just how grimy, skeevy and unsavory New York City was in the 1970s and 1980s. A visitor to the Big Apple these days sees a largely transformed metropolis, comparatively free of the discarded people, urban decay and filth that characterized it not so long ago. But back then, the degradation of New York was shocking to behold, suggesting that cities themselves were places that compressed humanity so tightly as to express its every negative impulse, like infection from a wound. Director John Carpenter—king of B-movies way more awesome than they have any right to be—seized upon this to craft a dystopian tale of a near-future police-state America and the world’s greatest city turned into science fiction’s most memorable prison. The result was Escape from New York.
The story takes place in a retro-future 1988 where the crime rate is so out of control that the federal government evacuates Manhattan, walls it off, and dumps all hardened criminals inside. The bridges and waterways are mined. The walls are too high to climb, and even if you could, there is an army of guards waiting to machinegun whoever comes over the top. Anybody sent in never comes out, and must fend for themselves in what has become a true concrete jungle. This works well enough until one day a terrorist hijacks Air Force One and crashes it into Manhattan just as the President is on his way to a critical summit with the Soviets. The superpowers have been at war for a long time now, and this summit is the last, best chance to end things on terms the U.S. might find acceptable. Nobody knows the President is missing. Who the hell is going to go into New York and get the guy out before the Soviets catch on? Snake Plissken. That’s who.
Plissken is a former Special Forces commando so badass that he was probably born wearing his signature eyepatch. He got busted trying to rob a federal bank, so he’s on his way to New York, but the warden pulls Plissken aside, gives him the lowdown on the missing President and offers him a deal: get the President—and his top secret briefcase—out in 24 hours we’ll overlook that little bank incident. Oh, and as added incentive, they jam some little micro-explosives in Plissken’s neck so that if his mission fails, he dies. That’s just so he doesn’t cut and run at the earliest opportunity. Snake is no angel, and the Warden is no dummy. Pretty soon, we find Snake armed with the kind of arsenal that made sense to an early 1980s action movie fan—suppressed MAC-10, .357 magnum, throwing stars—and flying a glider onto the top of the World Trade Center, from which he is to make his literal descent into the heart of darkness. Once on the ground, Snake must battle his way through endless ranks of convicts as he works out how to get the President, deliver him from safety, and keep himself alive. It’s all a bit tougher than expected, even for a guy like Snake.
It’s always problematic in science fiction when a story imagines a near future that the audience has since surpassed. It shows a limit of the imagination that can happen to even the best of writers. Escape from New York’s version of 1997 is now some 20 years past. Had you told Escape’s audiences at the time that by 1997, Times Square would be all lit up with neon and Disney Broadway plays, people would look at you like you had antlers growing from your head. But that’s what happened, and as such, Escape from New York maintains a weird kind of timelessness. It never quite feels like an inaccurate foretelling of the future, because the future it foretells is so extreme. Rather, the setting increasingly feels like an alternate reality that we should be thankful never came to pass. In that way, Escape from New York ages remarkably well.
One of the things that makes this movie such an enduring action classic is its mind-boggling cast. A young Kurt Russell plays Snake and instantly catapults to the upper echelon of all-time movie action heroes. Ernest Borgnine plays a cabbie who you’re never quite sure what he could have done to merit permanent lockup, but the ease with which the guy can fling a Molotov cocktail suggests a few theories. Dean Stanton is a criminal mastermind gaming the system within the prison, sidekicked by Adrienne Barbeau, queen of the 1980 B-movie vixens, and New York’s sexiest roadblock. Isaac Hayes (yeah, that Isaac Hayes) is the Duke of New York, the urban warlord who has the President, played with the right kind of aristocracy and spinelessness by Donald Pleasance. Lee van Cleef is the Warden. Lee van Cleef! That is how freaking awful the situation has gotten in this movie: the world’s biggest prison needs a guy like him to wrangle guys like Kurt Russell and Isaac Hayes. I get the vapors just thinking about it.
Another of the movie’s considerable strengths is how well it sells the very concept of the anti-hero. There are no good guys here, least of all Snake, who doesn’t do the right thing, ever. He just needs to save his own skin, man. And if that means rescuing the President of the U.S. of A, well then, alright. Plissken is the guy who won’t leave a friend behind, but that’s about the extent of his charity. When Snakes exits the movie with a final act of middle-finger-to-the-world defiance, it’s a moment of truth that attitude shows that while not everybody can be a hero, a hero could be anybody. Even in New York.