We next see a bus arrive, which two armed guards exit, escorting a man with an eye patch. As they escort him into a building where prisoners are processed and transported into the prison. The loud speaker reminds prisoners that they have the option to "terminate and be cremated" at any time, rather than go to the prison.
Island security has obtained a distress signal, which they soon realize is from Air Force One, which has been hijacked by a terrorist who is in the process of crashing it. The Secret Service men get the president into an escape pod and launch him. Security forces, led by Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) enter the island to search for the president. They're greeted by a prisoner who tells them to leave or the president dies. They show Hauk the president's finger to prove they have him, and he is forced to back off. Hauk soon sees the man with the eye patch, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Looking through his record, Hauk cites special forces, black ops experience and many honors, along with his conviction for robbing the federal reserve. He makes Snake an offer.
Hauk: You go in, find the President, bring him out in 24 hours, and you're a free man.
Snake Plissken: 24 hours, huh?
Bob Hauk: I'm making you an offer.
Snake Plissken: Bullshit!
Bob Hauk: Straight just like I said.
Snake Plissken: I'll think about it.
Bob Hauk: No time. Give me an answer.
Snake Plissken: Get a new president!
Bob Hauk: We're still at war, Plissken. We need him alive.
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.
Snake Plissken: Why me?
Bob Hauk: You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad. You know how to get in quiet. You're all I got.
Snake Plissken: I guess I go in one way or the other... doesn't mean shit to me. All right... I'll do it. Give me the pardon paper.
Bob Hauk: When you come out.
Snake Plissken: Before.
Bob Hauk: I told you I wasn't a fool, Plissken.
Snake Plissken: Call me Snake.
Hauk tells Snake about the inhabitants of the island. They equip him with a tracking device/ timer, and tell him he can locate the president by a signal from bracelet he wears.Hauk tells him that he know has less than 23 hours, as the deadline is due to a briefcase the president was to bring to the "Hartford Summit" meeting with China and Russia. They inject Plissken with microscopic capsules which will explode in twenty four hours, unless he's back before then and they deactivate them. Snake promises "when I get back, I'm gonna kill you."
Snake is given a plane to land on the Wrold Trade Center, the only way to get in undetected. Snake makes the landing. He makes his way down and finds the wreckage of the plane, reporting back to Hauk, that no one else survived the crash. He gets a blip on his wrist device, indicating the president is ahead. He searches through the devastated Manhattan, finding a theater with people watching a live musical show. He's noticed walking through by Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) who recognizes him as Snake Pissken. He tells Snake he shouldn't go downstairs, but Snake doesn't listen. Snake casually beats two muggers who attempt to attack him. He finds the president's tracking bracelet, on the wrist of a random degenerate. He radios Hauk to tell him he's leaving and the president is dead. Hauk tells him if he tries to leave, he'll shoot him down.Snake remarks "No human compassion."
With no other option, he continues searching, finding the president's escape pod. Snake follows a man making noises and is surprised when people start appearing all around him, coming up to the street via manhole covers and emerging out of alleys. He ducks into a "Chock Full O' Nuts" shop and meets a girl (Season Hubley) who asks if he's a cop. She tells him she's stuck in the shop as it isn't safe to go out at night with the gangs out. She recognizes him, and remarks "I heard you were dead." It turns out the shop isn't safe as a gang starts coming in through the floorboards, grabbing the girl. Snake shoots some of them and gets away, but his radio is broken.
Cabbie finds him coming out of an alley and tells him he shouldn't be in the street at night. Cabbie casually tosses a Molotov cocktail into the alley where the gang chasing him is now coming from. He's honored to have Snake in his cab. Snake reveals he's looking for the president and puts a gun to Cabbie's head. Cabbie is happy to tell him that the Duke has the President and informs him that he doesn't need to put a gun to his head to get the information. Cabbie tells him the Duke is the Duke of New York, and he's in charge of everything. He also tells him that no one can meet the Duke and live. Cabbie brings Snake to a building, telling him it's a better neighborhood. The building is where "the Brain" (Harry Dean Stanton) lives. They have to get through Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) the Brain's girlfriend. She remarks that she thought Snake was dead. Snake recognizes The Brain as Harold, an old friend who ran out on him and his team in a mission. He demands to know where the president is. He insists that he doesn't know. Snake offers to take the Brain out with him if he can bring him to the President. Maggie claims that the Duke is planning to take everybody out of the prison. Snake tells her that very soon, the president won't mean much. The Brain reveals that they're working on crossing the 69th St. Bridge, (which is mined ) to leave the island.
They see the Duke (Isaac Hayes) approaching in a car with chandeliers mounted on the hood. Cabbie reminds Snake, "You don't cross the Duke!" The Brain is in a panic because he thinks the Duke will kill him for being with Snake. Duke insists that they go get the President while the Duke is here. They steal a car and head for him, The Brain suggesting they take Broadway against Maggie's protests. Broadway is now completely barbarous, with heads on pikes in the street and people pelting their car with thrown objects as soon as they enter it. The Brain points out a train car, which should contain the president. He tells Snake the Duke should be back in five minutes and he's leaving in four. The Brain distracts the car's guards while Snake sneaks in and grabs the president, killing the guards in the car silently. More guards come after them once they leave the car. Snake beats quite a few of them until they restrain him with numbers.
The Duke has arrived and asks Brain if Snake is a friend of his. The Duke knocks out Snake, noting that he's heard of him, and heard he was dead. Helicopters scan the island for people but find nothing using infrared body scans, as if the island is deserted. An official appears at the prison headquarters telling Hawk they have to go in themselves. Outside, the train cars, the Duke shoots around the president who is tied up to a wall. He happens to shoot open the briefcase attached to the president's wrist. One of the duke's men takes the cassette tapes in the briefcase and puts them in his pocket. They then untie the president.
One of the helicopters sees a group of people waving them down from the food drop area. They leave the president's briefcase for the security people to find. The Brain figures out that Snake must have come in at the top of the World Trade Center and starts planning to take the plane himself. Hauk examines the briefcase and finds a note in it from Duke, demanding amnesty for all prisoner's in exchange for the president. He's also dismayed that the tapes are not in the briefcase. They also included something from Plissken which gets Hauk to agree that they will go in themselves. Snake is escorted around by many guards, still limping from his wound. They bring him into a makeshift boxing ring while the crowd cheers. His opponent is much bigger than Snake, although Snake appears disinterested. The Duke makes an announcement from the balcony:
They sent in their best man, and when we roll across the 59th Street bridge tomorrow, on our way to freedom, we're going to have their best man leading the way - from the neck up! ...On the hood of my car!
Snake fights his opponent, both armed with trash can lids, and sticks with spikes in them and activates the tracer in his tracking device. Eventually Snake sticks one of the nails through the man's head and the crowd starts sheering "Snake, Snake, Snake" enthusiastically.
The Brain,and Maggie make their way in to see the president (who they've dressed up in a blonde wig) When the guards realize the Brain shouldn't be in there, Maggie shoots them dead. The Brain and Maggie escape the building with the president heading for the plane. Snake catches up with the Brain and Maggie, as well as the others who pursued them there. Snake helps them fend off the attackers, and the plane ends up falling off the building. Snake realizes the briefcase is gone and asks about the tape. The Brain claims he knows where it is to avoid Snake leaving him behind. The Duke finds them, and threatens to kill them although they escape. Cabbie picks them up and they discover he has the tape, having traded one of Duke's men for his hat. They head for the 69th St. Bridge, now relying on the Brain's diagram to escape. The Duke chases after them. The diagram isn't very effective as they hit several mines, finally blowing the cab in two and killing Cabbie. They go the rest of the way on foot. The Brain hits a mine and dies and Maggie elects to stay behind and try to shoot the Duke, until he runs her over. The Duke follows on foot and Hauk realizes that's how Snake is leaving, keeping his forces on standby, ordering a truck with a winch to help them over the wall, as well as instructing the guards not to shoot prisoners.
The Duke arrives as they're lowering the winch, shooting at Plissken and the guards. Snake beats the Duke and then starts climbing up the winch. The President sees the Duke get up with his gun and shoots him several times, repeating "You're the Duke. You're A number one!" while blasting him (a phrase the Duke had forced him to say earlier) Hauk has Snake's explosives deactivated. The president tells Snake he'll give him anything he wants if he just names it. Snake asks him how he feels about the people who died to get him out of there. The President says the nation appreciates their sacrifice. He then rushes to get ready for a televised address, which relies on the cassette tape from his briefcase. Hauk tells him he has another deal for him to think about, but Snake puts him off. We see the president's surprise when the cassette is Cabbie's music. Snake walks away, unwinding the actual tape.
John Carpenter has never been a director to waste much effort on polish or subtlety. Escape from New York is essentially an ugly parable that is unashamed to present itself as such. This is evident in not only his gritty low budget film style, but also in the way he handles the plot, and related details. "Escape From New York" is certainly sci fi but it isn't about gadgets but people. Rather than flying cars, he shows us a future, that despite having advanced technology, has run in the reverse direction. If you were of a mind to, you could spend a day finding holes in the story logic, but Carpenter isn't worried about such details, as they are just excuses to get the characters to interact, more specifically to allow Snake Plissken to interact with the ugly world around him. "Escape From New York" is a dated movie, but it's Carpenter's willingness to play it completely over the top that keeps the dated quality from dragging it down. It's not likely that Manhattan will become a prison island, by the year 2999, but again, it's not supposed to be a likely outcome, only a nightmarish imagining of where we are brought to a an imagined conclusion, in order to examine a few of our failures.
Kurt Russell's performance is pitch perfect. He makes Snake a terrifically stoic soldier who's tired of taking orders. His tone of voice when saying his own name is enough to give us a feeling for his contempt. Ernest Borgnine's Cabbie is a high point of the film. This "simple" character brimming with enthusiasm gives an unexpected energy to the journey. Of all the deaths in the picture, Cabbie's is the only one that really hits home. Harry Dean Stanton is also great as self serving as Snake, yet much more untrustworthy. He's a coward all the way through, yet has a talent for making himself valuable. Isaac Hayes also shines as the absurdly egocentric Duke. His unpredictable presence brings a menace to every scene he's in. He isn't an easily disposable villain brought in to let Snake score some easy tough guy points, and it's interesting that it isn't Snake who kills Duke but the president himself. Lee Van Cleef's performance, though brief, brings with it the weight of Van Cleef's career playing Western heavies. It takes that kind of presence to not look ridiculous when trying to force Snake Plissken to do what you want. The cast of this movie alone ensures an enjoyable experience.
I find it amusing that we're already a ways past the futuristic 1997, in which the film takes place. Manhattan is no closer to being a prison island now, but I don't imagine Carpenter really thought it would. It's this kind of over the top detail that suggests Carpenter aimed for the most visually dramatic way to illustrate where society was headed. I don't believe it ever aims to be prophetic in a literal way, only to illustrate the huge disconnect between certain parts of society. Making Manhattan an unattended (on the inside) prison is a pretty direct way to say, those in power don't care in any way shape or form about the "criminal" classes. Once you're sent to New York, you don't get out. That's the only rule, and the values illustrated by that couldn't be more clear. He doesn't delve into what's required to get sent to the prison, but we can assume that every resident is not a hardened murderer or felon. Crime seems to have become a catch all category for any unwanted behavior. Using the destroyed statue of liberty as a marketing image (although the statue is intact in the film) is a pretty direct cue as to the desired effect, as the prison island is an examination of what we do with our huddled masses. The irony is clear looking at an excerpt from "the New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, which is inscribed there:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Plissken is not a saint, being a square representation of the anti hero. We know that he tried to rob the federal reserve, and most people would agree that bank robbers should be incarcerated. We also know that Plissken has worked top secret special ops for the government. The connection between the two actions can be read as Snake Plissken having outright contempt for the government he worked for. The federal reserve is the government's money. This isn't at all veiled in his conversation with Hauk. He doesn't care about Hauk's concern for civilization, or for the safety of the president. A full pardon is what it takes to get his attention, and even then, we are as aware as Hauk is that the pardon should be handed out after the job is done. Even planting the explosive in Plissken is understandable, knowing that Snake has no real loyalty to them and seems to be the most dangerous man alive besides. Letting Snake Plissken rescue the president without another incentive to ensure he delivers would be as dangerous to the government as giving the president to the gangs.
Snake is portrayed as self serving and amoral, self preservation the only thing that really drives him. But keep in mind that this character doesn't exist in a vacuum. The world he exists in has already been through a third world war, and America has clearly stated that their interest is only in furthering the well being of the elite class. The helicopter in the beginning incinerating prisoners on a raft, treats this as a routine activity. Prisoner's entering the prison are given the option to "terminate" at any time in order to save the guards the effort of transport. The guards serve a system which uses cruelty as daily practice. Knowing Snake's extensive experience, it's hard to say that his attitude is unjustified. In fact, he appears to be the only person with a conscience in the film. The bar for conscience, however, has been significantly lowered in this world, and Snake thinks nothing of walking by a rape, rather than take the time to intervene, which would cost time from his mission.
Once inside the prison, we see that Snake really is a legend, although everybody thinks that he was dead. Duke refers to Snake as "the best" they could send, so it's interesting that he isn't presented here as in any way invulnerable. He gets injured and captured like everyone else and his success is hardly a foregone conclusion. He fulfills his mission, but only barely, at the last second possible. Only at the end do we see the shape of the grudge that Snake carries, when he asks the president what he thinks of the people that died to get him out, and he responds that they did a service to their country. Snake isn't at all impressed with the president's sincerity, although the response is exactly what he expected. Despite his pardon, Snake Plissken, knows that he is as "undesirable" as those in the Manhattan prison, and as he reveals in a conversation with Brain, he's seen others die in service to their country. Whether withholding the tape dooms the country or not isn't nearly as much a concern to Snake, as the chance to call the government on it's lies and disregard for humanity. Snake is self serving and amoral sure, but the government's cruelty and callousness makes him almost look kind.
The indictment here is not merely the government however, as those inside the prison aren't any kinder to each other. "The Duke" is certainly no better than the president in terms of being kind to his fellow man. The average inmate is either a member of a gang or counting down the minutes until a gang member finds him. The prison is a civilisation of ruins, for the most part, totally barbaric. The "civilized" areas are typically only a symbol of status for those with the most power, as demonstrated most by the chandelier's on the Duke's car. And yet, in the midst of the prison insanity, it's still possible to sit in a theater and see a musical. Ernest Borgnine's Cabbie, the gentlest person in the film, keeps Molotov cocktails handy to keep the gangs at bay. Whether in prison or on the outside, the people submit to some structured authority, while the Duke's forces use spikes and sticks, the American government uses cutting edge firepower, preferring to threaten from a distance and having the money to do so. The Duke's gang, however, doesn't present itself as just or civilized so at least can't be accused of hypocrisy. They're only doing what they're expected to do.
Snake Plissken is the wild card, the only one against the very idea of going along with the system. He's been there already and knows what it means, and as a result thinks nothing of thwarting the president's plan to scare China and Russia into line, as soon as his own life is saved. In "Escape from New York" it's hard to find much of humanity that's really worth saving, unless we can find it in Snake Plissken.