Bad Movie Recap & Review: Escape from New York

Do these posts really need any introduction at this point? You know what to expect and you know you’ll be entertained. I give the floor to JB Rockwell, author of Serengeti, Dark and Stars, and most recently, Hecate.

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Escape from New York

(or, as I like to call it)

An American Road Warrior in Manhattan

By J.B. Rockwell

Snake Plissken


Let me start off by saying I love Kurt Russell. Seriously. Love him. From The Thing, to Captain Ron, to Stargate and Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, the man nails it every time.

Um, well, except for Big Trouble in Little China, maybe. That…wasn’t so good.

Of all his roles, though, Snake Plissken has to be the most iconic. I mean, c’mon! The eyepatch! The hair! THAT OH-SO-SUGGESTIVE BELLY TATTOO! I mean, yeah, I admit, Escape from New York isn’t the best dystopian sci-fi flick out there—far from it, actually—but it’s a classic. A must-see for Russell’s surly, snarling Plissken character alone.

Not convinced? Alright. How about this: Escape from New York is the American Road Warrior. Seriously! It is! Look. They’re both post-apocalyptic, humanity falling apart movies, right? They were both released in the same year (1981) movie released in the very same year, and yes, the setting is different (Road Warrior takes place in an Australian desert, Escape from New York on a single island in New York City), but take a close look at the main characters in the two movies: two gruff, angry, not-exactly-good guys forced into doing something heroic not because they want to, but because it’s the only way to get themselves out of a mess. I mean, look at these guys!

Tell me they don’t look like they hang out at the same biker bar together. Granted, Snake’s got a quasi-phallic, serpentine belly tattoo and Max doesn’t, but that’s why Escape from New York is better. Plus, Kurt Russell. Nuff said.

Mad Max
Snake Plissken









Still don’t believe me? Fine. Keep reading. If you get to the end and your still not convinced, drop me a comment and we can duke it out.

Alright *cracks knuckles, gets down to business* let’s do this thing.

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Movie cover for Escape from New York

The Plot:

In 1997, when the U.S. president crashes into Manhattan, now a giant maximum security prison, a convicted bank robber is sent in to rescue him.

Note: This the future, in this movie. 1997. Um, yeah…

Taglines (Because They’re Awesome)

The world’s greatest leader is a hostage in the most dangerous place on Earth. Now only the deadliest man alive can save him.

1997: New York City is now a maximum security prison. Breaking out is impossible. Breaking in is insane.

New York City has Become the Only Maximum Security Prison for the Entire Country. Once You go In, You don’t Come Out… Until Today.


The Cast:

Kurt Russell (Known for…sheesh what isn’t he known for?) as Snake Plissken: a good guy gone bad who must do bad things to bad people to restore the good…or something.

Lee Van Cleef (Star of a bazillion spaghetti westerns, including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) as Bob Hauk: The US Police Force Commissioner (evidently, in addition to having just one prison the US has settled on just one police force?) tasked with retrieving the president—at all costs!

Ernest Borgnine (Best known as Ernest Borgnine) as Cabbie: an off-kilter and possibly bat-shit crazy cab driver who rolls around Manhattan prison with his big band music blaring, randomly popping up now and then to give Snake a ride in his classic yellow taxi.

Donald Pleasance (The bad guy you know, but don’t know. Has appeared in too many things to list, including most of the Halloween movies) as POTUS: Dumped in Manhattan prison with his precious, precious tape, promptly taken prisoner and turned into the Duke of New York’s bitch.

Isaac Hayes (Best known as the voice of Chef from South Park) as the Duke of New York (AKA, the Duke): The Tina Turner of this particular Bartertown, decked out with a swank cavalry hat, gold-braided epaulets, and a shiny Caddy with chandelier headlights. And yes, Tina Turner and Bartertown were in Thunderdome, not Road Warrior. Sue me.

Harry Dean Stanton (Another guy who’s played a ton of roles, my favorite of which was Brett: the teamster who gets munched in Alien) as Brain: Manhattan Island prison’s resident smart guy. Pulled some heists with one Snake Plissken back in the day, so they’ve got history. Bad history.

Adrienne Barbeau (Her resume’s impressive and all over the map, ranging from roles in Creepshow and Maude, to a stint on General Hospital and voicing Catwoman, AKA Selena Kyle, in Batman: The Animated Series) as Maggie: Brain’s main squeeze and sometime bodyguard, not named Pinky (disappointingly) but struts around in a pink dress.

Budget & Box Office Info:

Release Date: 10 July 1981

Budget: $6M

Box Office Sales: $25M US

Sequels, Crossovers, Tie-Ins & Other Good Stuff:

A sequel, Escape from L.A., was released in 1996 with Kurt Russell returning in the lead role. There’s also been talk of rebooting the original over the years, with film rights bought and sold and traded between various production companies without ever actually producing a film. At one point, Gerard Butler was tagged as the next Snake (Mc)Plissken, and another Jeremy Renner, but so far nothing seems to have stuck. Carpenter himself tried to get an anime spin-off going, but that never materialized either.

Note to Hollywood: Don’t reboot the original, make the prequel with Snake’s backstory instead.

As for non-film crossovers and tie-ins…well, there’s plenty:

  • In 1981, Bantam Books published a movie tie-in novelization that included scenes cut from the film, as well as backstory for both Snake and Hauk. Take note Hollywood—someone already wrote the story for you, you lazy sods.
  • Marvel Comics released the one-shot The Adventures of Snake Plissken in January 1997, with a story that takes place sometime between Escape from New York and before the ‘Cleveland escape’ Snake mentions in Escape from L.A..
  • In 2003, CrossGen published John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken Chronicles, a four-part comic book miniseries that takes place a day or so after the events of Escape from New York.

In addition to these direct descendants, Escape from New York and Russell’s Snake Plissken character have been directly cited as influencing some other really cool stuff:

  • Cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson credits the film as an influence on his novel Neuromancer.
  • Videogame director Hideo Kojima has referred to the movie frequently as an influence on his work, in particular the Metal Gear series, with the game’s protagonist (Solid Snake) partially (I’d argue heavily) influenced by Snake Plissken. So much so, in fact, that in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty Snake actually uses the alias “Pliskin” to hide his real identity during most of the game.

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Escape from New York (in a Nutshell):

Warning: Spoilers. Proceed with caution.

The Set-Up:

1997: Crime rates in the US have increased 400%, prompting the government to turn Manhattan Island (New York’s trendiest zip code) into a maximum security prison.

That’s right, the whole damn island—lock, stock and barrel—cut off from the rest of the world by mined bridges and a 50-foot containment wall. And since they’re a lazy government, they sort of just…left things after that. No guards, no security force keeping things under control, just prisoners left to run riot, organizing themselves into roving gangs.

Oh, and supposedly the rest of the world outside the prison has gone all dystopian and crappy thanks to the US, Russia and China getting pissed at each other and launching World War III.

Sound familiar? Gangs, lawlessness, everything gone to hell in a handbasket—sound an awful lot like the post-apocalyptic set-up in Road Warrior? Thought so. *acts smug, is smug*

Right. The movie. POTUS is on his way to a summit with China and Russian when Air Force One is hijacked by domestic terrorists. Well, a domestic terrorist who evidently got on board by pretending to be a flight attendant.

Side note: I’m continually amazed how people think the Government is cunning enough to fake the entire moon landing and yet stupid enough to let a terrorist onto Air Force One. Also, you’d think that, given the violent and chaotic nature of this, the US’s one and only prison—a whopping big island far from Washington, DC—that Air Force One would go well around it to wherever it’s going, but nope! Flies right over. What a buncha chumps.

Anyway, back to the plane. POTUS and his briefcase of super-secret, nuclear fusion information on cassette—oh, 1980s, your high-tech was so not high-tech—are loaded into an emergency pod and spat out over Manhattan Island mere seconds before Air Force One crashes. Unfortunately, the ponds lands inside the prison—Really? With all that nearby landmass they couldn’t have shot him a little bit further and not stuck him inside the prison?—where he’s taken hostage by a badass calling himself the Duke of New York. The police go in after him, but quickly retreat (something about threats, and a severed finger, and if they show their faces P-OTUS-Trumpsalot is gonna end up a deader) scratch their heads for a while after and finally decide to call in the big guns, enlisting the services of a scruffy, one-eyed, special-forces-turned-federal-depository-robber by the name of S.D. “Snake” Plissken.


The Deal:

So, here’s the thing about Snake: he’s gruff, he’s surly, and as far as I can tell, he doesn’t like anyone. Not even that gerbil his mom got him when he was eight. He’s also got a huge chip on his shoulder when it comes to police and authority, so you just know he ain’t gonna help out POTUS Pinky Loser unless there’s something in it for him. So how, you ask, does Police Commission Hauk convince him to save Prezzie-Wezzie and retrieve his magic, end-of-society-as-we-know-it stopping tape? Well, he offers a carrot, of course. And then screws him over with a stick.

The Carrot: A full pardon for Snake’s crimes. Sounds good, until…

The Screw You Stick: Snake has just 24 hours to complete the mission (because the summit Prez and Tape were headed to starts in, you guessed it, 24 hours). Come back after that—with or without POTUS and his info—and Snake’s screwed. Well, more than screwed, actually. He’s dead. Because Screw You Stick #2 from Hauk involves microscopic explosives injected into Snake’s carotid arteries that will explode in 24 hours. Oh, and just to screw him that little bit more, those same explosives can’t be defused more than 15 minutes before they’re scheduled to explode.

Nice, eh? Yeah. Hauk’s a really nice guy.

Lacking other options, Snake reluctantly and gruffly agrees. He does pretty much everything gruffly in this move when it comes right down to it. And scruffly. And one-eyed. ’Cause he’s Snake Plissken, and that’s what a Snake Plissken do.

Road Warrior Note: Max was pretty gruff, and scruffy, and generally pissed off. Granted he had use of two full eyes, not one, but from what I can tell, he hated pretty much everyone in that movie but his dog. Okay, so he liked his dog and Snake didn’t like his gerbil. Sheesh. I never said these guys were exactly alike.

The Rest of It:

Snake sneaks into Manhattan via glider—yup, glider; first time for everything—lands it atop the World Trade Center and leaves it there so he can come back and use it to escape later. (I’m not a pilot, nor a glider enthusiast, but I’m pretty sure his idea of ‘tipping it over the edge and gliding to freedom’ would probably end in a big ’ol splat of death, but what the hell. Let’s go with it.) Using his vintage, 80s tech (a box with some not-at-all helpful lights), Snake marches into the ramshackle, garbage strewn, used-to-be-a-city prison to track POTUS down. Along the way, he runs into a gang called ‘the Crazies’ gets rescued by Ernest Borgnine, err, Cabbie (a slightly off his rocker cab driver whose pastimes include listening to big band music and slinging Molotov cocktails), and meets up with an old chum called Brain (real name Harold).

Road Warrior Equivalency Note: Cabbie = Gyro Captain, Brain = Pappagallo, and Maggie = Warrior Woman. Oh yeah, I haven’t mentioned her yet. She’s Brain’s main squeeze.

So, turns out Snake and Brain have history (bad, of course, since we already established that Snake hates everyone and everything in the known universe, including gerbils, though possibly not snakes), but they still kinda, sorta, but never really agree to help each other out. Because, plot and stuff.

Anywho, Brain’s a big ’ol wealth of knowledge, and very kindly informs Snake that the Duke of New York (AKA, the Duke, AKA POTUS Taker, AKA leader of The Gypsies—the largest and most powerful gang in Manhattan prison) plans to lead a mass escape across the heavily mined 69th Street Bridge using Prezzie as a human shield. Oh, and Brain is the only one with a diagram of the bridge and said mines so, ya know, that’s gonna be important at some point.

Brain also points Snake to the Duke’s compound, where he finds POTUS trussed up in an old railroad car, frees him and promptly gets captured by none other than the Duke himself: six feet of cavalry hat and gold-braided epaulet wearing Isaac Hayes, cruising the streets of broken down Manhattan in a 1970s boat of a Cadillac decked out with chandelier headlights.


Also, for Road Warrior equivalency, the Duke = Lord Humungus who, as I remember, liked to roll around in a pretty over-the-top vehicle himself.

Right, back to the movie. Snake is forced into a gladiatorial match with a simply charming bruiser named Slag (think Blaster from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome—okay, they hadn’t made that movie yet). The two combatants beat away at each other while a bloodthirsty crowd looks on, trading blows with baseball bats, then spiked baseball bats, using trashcan lids as shields. Blaster, I mean Slag gets the better of Snake at first (he’s bigger after all, and has the crowd on his side) but in a surprise move, Snake rallies to victory, smacking the Slagster from behind, leaving him dead-dead-dead.

Meanwhile, Brain and Maggie have been busy, tricking the Duke’s men into giving them access to the President so they can steal him away. And it works…until the Duke discovers their treachery and calls his gang thugs from the gladiator match to track them down.

Snake escapes in the confusion when no one’s watching—whatever, guess he wasn’t really a prisoner or something—finds Brain, Maggie, and POTUS, jumps into Cabbie’s taxi and heads for the bridge.

Oh, right. The glider. They went there first but some other gang knocked it off the top of the building. See? Told you the damn thing would crash. Also, Snake gets a crossbow bolt in the leg somewhere along the way, giving him a very Road Warrior like limp. Just wanted to mention that.

Back to the taxi. Using his mine diagram, Brain guides them across the bridge with the Duke and his chandeliered Caddy in hot pursuit. Unfortunately, the cab hits a mine (Snake’s fault, not Brain’s) and gets split in two. Cabbie dies, then Brain, Maggie gets killed when she stays behind to shoot out the Duke’s Caddy, only to get killed herself when said Caddy crashes into her, leaving Snake and POTUS alone with a now-afoot Duke still in hot pursuit. They reach the containment wall and the police lower a rope to pull them over, the Duke gets dukified—i.e., killed with extreme malice—by a slightly-crazed, PTSD and revenge-driven POTUS, after which point he calmly heads off to hair and make-up so he can address the international community.

Snake, meanwhile, receives his pardon and has the mini-explosives implanted in his neck defused with seconds to spare. Spits in Hauk’s eye (and Prezzie’s while he’s at it) refusing an offer to work for the government on secret missions to head off into the dark of night.

Because he’s a lone wolf…err, snake. And lone Snake don’t work for no one but himself.

The final scene shows the President delivering his summit speech via televised broadcast. He cues up the cassette tape—remember, the information on it is super-secret and will somehow bring about world peace—only to stare in horror as Cabbie’s rancid big band music spews out.

Surprise, bitches!

Snake, looking extremely pleased with himself, saunters off into the darkness, smiling as he tears POTUS’s peace tape to shreds.

Road Warrior Note: Remember the switcheroo with the gas and the sand at the end of Road Warrior? Yeah, like that. Except cassette tapes. And Snake does the switcherooing. ’Cause he’s Snake Plissken: Ultimate Badass.

Bonus Material from Escape from New York:

Bob Hauk: You going to kill me, Snake?

Snake Plissken: Not now, I’m too tired. [pause] Maybe later.


Bob Hauk: Plissken? Plissken, what are you doing?

Snake Plissken: Playing with myself! I’m going in.


Snake Plissken: I don’t give a fuck about your war… or your president.

Bob Hauk: Is that your answer?

Snake Plissken: I’m thinking about it.

Bob Hauk: Think hard.