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Escape From New York (1981) is a cult-classic action film featuring the dream team of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. The story is one of the classics: a rescue mission. The President's plane has crashed in the badlands, and so Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) is forced to recruit the most Bad Ass criminal available to go in after him. That man is Snake Plissken, and if that name doesn't tell you everything you need to know about the character, you probably shouldn't be watching this kind of movie in the first place. If you still need a clue, he's wearing an eyepatch. And the only way to get him to agree to help is by putting on an Explosive Leash and turning him loose.
Oh, and as you may have worked out from the title, the badlands in question are the ruins of New York. Because this film is set Twenty Minutes Into the Future (or rather, sixteen years, in the year 1997), and Manhattan has become a giant ruin of a penal colony, full of savage gangs and ruled over by the Duke of New York, played by the late great Isaac Hayes.
The film is a classic of the dystopian future genre, and Snake is himself a classic Jerk with a Heart of Gold Anti-Hero. Snake's history is mostly just hinted at, but a Novelization, now out of print, fills in some of the details.
The supporting cast includes a lineup of memorable character actors, including Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, and Adrienne Barbeau's cleavage, which frankly deserves its own credit despite the brevity of its appearance.
Fifteen years later, Russell and Carpenter reunited for a sequel, Escape From L.A., which dispensed with much of the grittiness to lampoon Los Angeles and Hollywood culture. It was not met with nearly the same level of acclaim as the original.
A remake of Escape From New York is currently in development.
This film provides examples of:
- Absolute Cleavage: It's Adrienne freakin' Barbeau.
- Action Girl: Maggie is pretty handy with a pistol.
- Actor Allusion: It's been joked/speculated that since Kurt Russell was appearing in a movie with Lee Van Cleef, he decided to imitate Clint Eastwood.
- Afraid of Needles: Snake.
- Air Force One
- The Alcatraz: New York Maximum Security Penitentiary, AKA Manhattan Island Prison.
- Alternate History: The film's backstory and setting has become this.
- Ambiguously Gay: Romero.
- Anti-Hero: Snake is a mix of type IV and type V. Also counts as a Nominal Hero at best, and a Designated Hero at worst.
- Awesome McCoolname: Snake Plissken.
- Badass: Take your pick.
- Batter Up: Snake vs. a huge guy in a Blood Sport.
- Beyond the Impossible: A landmine neatly bisects a car between the front and back seats with only one out of the five passenges being killed.
- Big Bad: The Duke.
- Blood Sport
- Bottomless Magazines: Snake's MAC 10 is never reloaded once, and it fires about 10x as many bullets as he apparently brought with him.
- Also applies to Snake's revolver; not only does it never get reloaded, but when Maggie gets charged at by the Duke, the revolver with six chambers is fired seven times.
- Boxed Crook
- Bullethole Door
- Chekhov's Gun: Subverted. Snake takes a wide array of weapons with him, but doesn't get a chance to use them all.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Brain acts just loyal enough to Snake and the Duke on different occasions to avoid being shot, but doesn't hesitate to screw them both over if it helps him get away.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Cabbie has been driving his taxi in Manhattan for 30 years which means it's possible that he's not even there for any crime, but may have refused to leave when the city was walled up.
- Combat Pragmatist: Snake.
- Crapsack World: The United States seems to have become this, with the crime rate rising by 400% in 1988 and Manhattan island being converted to a maximum security prison. When the movie was made in 1981, this didn't seem too unreasonable to expect of the future.
- Deadpan Snarker: Snake.
- Dirty Coward: The president.
President: May god save me and watch over all of you.
- Said shortly before the president escapes in a pod from Air Force One and all his advisors and security die horribly in the crash.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Being sent to Manhattan Island means a life sentence with no chance of release. Once you go in, you don't come out. There are no provisions inside to keep the prisoners fed and housed, they simply fend for themselves in any way that they can. It's heavily implied that everyone who commits a crime in the United States gets thrown in there.
- The Dragon: Romero for The Duke.
- Dub Name Change: In Italy, Snake is known as "Jena" (hyena), due to "Serpente" (snake) being too long to properly sync up with the video (oddly enough, the Spanish dub averts this, in spite of the fact that their word for snake (serpiente) is even longer).
- Enforced Method Acting: In some of the shots during the fight scene, Snake's expressions of terror are real. Ox Baker, having never done a film before, got a little too into his role, and poor Kurt Russell really did end up fearing for his life.
- Estrogen Brigade Bait / Perverse Sexual Lust: Snake has quite a following.
- Evil Laugh: Romero.
- Exact Time to Failure: The explosives planted near Snake's carotid artery will kill him at a pre-set time unless he returns with the president.
- Explosive Leash: The government ensures that Snake won't give up his mission by implanting explosives into his body that will kill him if he doesn't return within a day.
- Eyepatch of Power: Snake.
- Female Gaze: Come on, you know where you were looking during Snake's Shirtless Scene...
- Finger in the Mail: A creepy punk taunts the government troops with the kidnapped President's severed finger.
- Filk Song: "The Escape" by Julia Ecklar
- Forced Prize Fight
- Giant Mook: Ox Baker's character.
- Good Hair, Evil Hair: Snake Plissken.
- The Government: Fascist and totalitarian.
- The Great Politics Mess-Up: In 1997, the Cold War has turned hot and the USA is fighting a (presumably conventional) war against the USSR.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Maggie. Later, Snake asks the President if he knew how many people died to save him. The President's rote response doesn't please Snake.
- Hell-Bent for Leather: Snake's old worn out leather coat.
- Hey, It's That Voice!: Jamie Lee Curtis is the voice of The Narrator in the intro.
- Hollywood Silencer: Averted with Snake's MAC-10.
- The Hyena: Romero.
- I Just Want to Be Free: Arguably Snake's entire motivation. He just wants to get away and be left alone to his own devices.
- I'm a Humanitarian: The "Crazies".
- Inexplicably Awesome: The movie tells us that Snake is an ex black ops soldier twice decorated who turned his back on his country and tried to rob the Federal Reserve. No reasons for Snake's choices that led him down that path are ever presented.
- Insistent Terminology / Do Not Call Me Paul: In both Escape from New York and Escape From L.A., the U.S. government is on a Last-Name Basis with protagonist Snake Plissken, to which he consistently replies, "Call me Snake." However, during the respective climaxes of both movies, when one of the government's men finally does call him Snake, he reverses his previous attitude with the reply, "The name's Plissken".
- Also, Brain really doesn't care to be called "Harold".
- Insufferable Genius: Brain. It's a minor miracle he's still alive in Manhattan since everyone hates him save Maggie and Cabbie.
- Brain is also the only person in Manhattan that can produce gasoline, possibly refined from crude oil obtained from the pump briefly shown well panning through his base (presumably the New York Public Library).
- It's All About Me: Snake cannot be persuaded to give a shit about anything but his own interests. Considering there is no particularly good side for him to be on, one can hardly blame him.
- The President is a selfish uncaring asshole too.
- Keep the Reward: After the rescue, the president is willing to give Snake anything he wants as a reward. Snake wants only one thing.
The President: I want to thank you. Anything you want, you just name it.
- Kill the Cutie: Cabbie. He spends most of the whole movie as a happy-go-lucky, overly friendly wide-eyed optimist who looks out for Plissken (even to the extent of throwing a molotov cocktail at some thugs, driving him for free and coming back for him just in time). Then, despite being in an explosion that leaves the others inexplicably unscathed, he dies horribly. Thankfully, Snake gets some justice for his unnecessary death by screwing the ungrateful president.
- Laughing Mad: Romero.
- MacGuffin: The tape with the secret of nuclear fusion.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Snake Plissken.
- New York Doubling: Filmed in St. Louis to keep the budget low. Four years later, the scene of the Batter Up Blood Sport (see above) was renovated into a hoity-toity shopping area — visual Mood Dissonance.
- Nineties Anti-Hero: Snake exemplifies this despite being nine years ahead of his time, making him an Ur Example.
- Noodle Incident:
- There has to be a reason everybody thinks Snake is dead...
- The Kansas City incident where Brain abandoned Snake and Fresno Bob is another one. It's possible that Snake could have almost died there, as he asks Brain "Do you know what they did to Bob?"
- The incident was filmed, but was removed for pacing. It is available on the Blu-ray re-release of the film, revealing Bob's fate. He was gunned down, although in a slightly excessive way.
- There has to be a reason everybody thinks Snake is dead...
- No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: The cassette tape holding the secret of nuclear fusion.
- Not in This For Your Revolution: And how! Snake absolutely despises the authorities who literally have to coerce him into working for them with a tailor-made "kill you in 24 hours" device in his body or he'd just bail on them in a heartbeat.
- Off-the-Shelf FX: What appeared to be an impressive (for 1981) wire-frame CGI image of Lower Manhattan was actually a physical model with the buildings outlined with glow-in-the-dark green tape and filmed in black light. Courtesy of none other than James Cameron.
- Oh Crap: The President when he discovers that Snake's switched the nuclear fusion tape with Cabbie's, and thus he's playing the dignitaries "Bandstand Boogie".
- Our Presidents Are Different: Well for starters he sounds British. An in-universe reason was given, but seriously it was to give Donald Pleasance the role.
- Parrot Exposition: An example occurs early on in the film. Also Hilarious in Hindsight.
Hauk: You go in, find the President and bring him back in 24 hours, and you're a free man.
- Phrase Catcher: See Running Gag below.
- Playing Against Type: Before Escape from New York, Kurt Russell was best known for doing Disney comedies and other lightweight fare. The studio was surprised when Carpenter picked him, instead of someone like Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones.
- Precision F-Strike: Snake's initial response to Hauk's proposal:
I don't give a fuck about your war, or your president.
- And again when Brain tries to dodge his questions:
Snake: *holding his gun to Brain's chest* Where's the president?!
- Punch Clock Hero: Snake, although kinda motivated since he has microscopic explosives that will rupture his carotid arteries in 24 hours.
- Real Life Relative:
- Refusal of the Call
- Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: "I heard you were dead."
- Running Gag:
- "Snake Plissken? I thought you were dead."
- "Call me Snake". followed up by later "The name's Plissken".
- Sanity Slippage: The President suffers one, combined with a Roaring Rampage of Revenge when he stops the winch that's bringing Snake to safety (keep in mind, he's about to be killed by explosives in his neck), to machine gun The Duke, screaming, "You're the Duke! You're the Duke! You're the Duke!... You're the Duke, but you ain't number one."
- Scary Black Man: The Duke (Isaac Hayes).
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right: Snake, in a weird way.
- "I thought you were dead" was also a running gag in the 1971 John Wayne movie Big Jake.
- The "Crazies" are, no doubt, a Shout-Out to the George Romero movie of the same name.
- The characters Cronenberg (the doctor who injects Snake with the explosives) and Romero (the spiky-haired Mook with the crazy laugh) are named after David Cronenberg and George Romero, respectively.
- Sleeves Are for Wimps: Snake.
- Sociopathic Hero: If Snake gives even a fraction of a damn about the people who die helping him, he certainly doesn't show it. The only hint that he might care is when he asks the president how he felt about all the people who died to rescue him and is not impressed with the president's flippant response.
- Spiritual Successor: Although not intended, this film's premise is fairly similar to The Warriors, in which the protagonists have one night to escape from a dystopian New York City crawling with street trash and urban warlords. Some parts of the soundtracks even sound similar.
- State Sec: The United States Police Force, who despite their name is well armed and equipped.
- Stylistic Suck: The song "Everyone's Coming To New York" is sung by various criminals, and even on the soundtrack CD, the singers sing slightly out of tune, and various interludes are played on kazoos. Why yes, hilarity most certainly does ensue.
- Tall, Dark and Snarky: Snake.
- The Load: The president.
Snake: We have to move fast.
- He doesn't.
- The Only One: Snake is told he's the man for the job due to his prior black ops experience and his expendability.
- Timed Mission: Both films. Subverted in the sequel in that it was a fake threat.
- Twenty Minutes Into the Future: Occurs in 1997. In 1988 the U.S. crime rate rose 400%, Manhattan was turned into the maximum security prison for the whole country, and the U.S. became authoritarian. There is a war going on with Soviet Union (presumably non-nuclear) and the whole film begins as Communist terrorists kidnap Air Force One. Cold War-phobia was very popular in The Eighties.
- What Happened To The Cab Driver: After Snake lands in New York, Cabbie is the first major character encountered. Cabbie takes Snake, Brain and Maggie to the Duke's headquarters, then drives off after panicking over the Duke's reputation. Later, as Snake, Brain and Maggie make their way with the President to the 69th Street Bridge, Cabbie suddenly returns, with no explanation as to where he was throughout a third of the movie. Seems like Contrived Coincidence.
- He's a taxi driver in New York (it's implied he's just a New Yorker who never left). If there's a fare involved, he'll show up.
- It can be assumed since Cabbie traded for the tape that he was still around Dukes other men when Brain and Maggie break out the president, he could have followed Duke's men who were following Brain and Maggie.
- Zeerust: While cassette tapes were still widely used in 1997, telex were gone by then. The wireframe guidance images in the glider might raise some eyebrows, but it's conceivable that such a light aircraft would use simple computer graphics.