Escape from New York (1981) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • 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.

  • In the future, crime is out of control and New York City's Manhattan is a maximum security prison. Grabbing a bargaining chip right out of the air, convicts bring down the President's plane in bad old Gotham. Gruff Snake Plissken, a one-eyed lone warrior new to prison life, is coerced into bringing the President, and his cargo, out of this land of undesirables.

  • In 1997, Manhattan has been transformed in the New York Maximum Security Penitentiary, where criminals are sent in life sentence. When the Air Force One crashes in Manhattan with the president of the USA that is traveling to a summit with other leaders, the prison dean Hauk proposes a deal to the convicted one-eyed bank robber Snake Plissken. If he rescues the president and his tape in less than 23 hours, he would be granted pardon. In order to guarantee full commitment of Snake Plissken, Hauk lures him and injects a lethal capsule in his blood that will dissolve in the scheduled time. Snake Plissken uses a small plane to land one the roof of the World Trade Center. Soon he finds that the tracking device was removed from the president. When he meets the taxi driver Cabbie, he learns that the warlord The Duke has captured the president. Now Snake Plissken has to team-up with his former partner Brain, who has double-crossed him in the past, and his squeeze Maggie to rescue the president and save his own life.

  • The year is 1998. Due to huge crime rates, the United States turns its once great city of New York into a maximum security Manhattan prison where hardcore criminals are put for life. All the bridges leading in and out of the city are mined, a large wall is built along the shoreline and a large police force army is based there to stop or kill any attempted escapees. In route to a conference Summit meeting between China and Soviet Union, the President on board Air Force One is forced to eject in a escape pod when a female terrorist takes over the controls and crashes the plane into a building inside the city. A new prisoner, ex-soldier Snake Plissken is offered his freedom if he goes in, frees the President and finds a tape with important information for the conference. Snake agrees but to ensure his co-operation, he is injected with a small but powerful explosive micro capsules that will only be destroyed if his mission is successful. Snake must set out into the decaying city, filled with immoral criminals, and he must succeed - for his own life.

  • After 1988, the U.S. turned Manhattan, New York into a maximum security prison where the most brutal criminals are residing for life, due to the 400% rise in crime rates. There's no way for them to escape, as the bridges are filled with mines, a large wall is built around the shoreline, and a police force army is based there to take out any attempted escapees. In 1997, Air Force One is hijacked, so the president escapes in a pod, landing in Manhattan. Ex-special forces war hero/bank robber Snake Plissken is offered his freedom if he can rescue the president, who was on his way to a Hartford Summit meeting as well as a cassette tape (CDs weren't around in 1981) that contains important information regarding Nuclear Fission within 24 hours. Just to make sure he goes through the mission, Snake has been implanted with two microscopic capsules that will explode within 24 hours, meaning that he'll be dead if he's a little late.

    Zack H.
  • The year is 1997. New York City has been turned into a maximum security prison colony, when the American crime rates grows high. New York City is surrounded by a wall and the bridges and waterways are mined making sure no convict escapes from Manhattan. Snake Plissken, a one-eyed former soldier turned bank robber arrives at New York after being sentenced to life imprisonment in New York City. Bob Hauk, police commissioner who runs the New York penal colony gives Snake a job for his freedom. Snake is sent into Manhattan to find and rescue the President of the United States who is trapped there, when a terrorist hijacked Air Force One and crashed it in the city. Not only Snake must rescue the President, he must also retrieve a cassette containing vital information in the President's possession. Hauk has Snake implanted with a bomb which is programmed to detonate in 22 hours, which will kill Snake if he fails the mission, and Hauk will have the bomb disarmed if Snake succeeds. Entering New York and 22 hours before the bomb kills him, Snake sets out to rescue the President who is being held hostage by a ruthless warlord known as The Duke of New York. Can Snake rescue the President and retrieve the cassette before the 22 hours are up? and will Snake Escape from New York?


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • In a voice-over narration, set in a dystopian 1997, World War III is nearing an end, both the United States and the still-existing Soviet Union suffered greatly in the conflict and both looking for a peaceful resolution. The island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison in 1988 because of a nationwide crime increase of 400% in the United States due to a gas attack by the Soviets at the start of the war in which New York was worst hit. Surrounded by a 50-foot (15 m) containment wall, all inmates are sentenced to life imprisonment, and have formed gangs which control the crumbling, garbage-strewn city.

    The opening scene shows the dark skyline of Manhattan as two men in a makeshift raft attempt to paddle away from the island when the raft they are in is blown to pieces by a hovering helicopter gunship, which returns to its base on Liberty Island where the overland entrance to the prison is located and the command center of the US police force surrounding the island.

    Traveling to a three-way summit between the United States, the Soviet Union and China, Air Force One, the plane of the President of the United States, is hijacked by a sole member of a revolutionary organization opposed to the government; a woman impersonating a stewardess (Nancy Stephens) kills the pilots and takes control of the plane. The nameless militant female anarchist crashes the plane in a suicide mission into a Manhattan skyscraper but the unnamed President (Donald Pleasence) is safely sealed in an escape pod and survives. The United States Police Force Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) arrives at the Liberty Island command center where he and the chief of security Remy (Tom Atkins) witness the crash on monitors in their control center. Hauk assembles a platoon of soldiers and they travel to the crash site in a fleet of helicopters. When they arrive, they find the escape pod empty, indicating that the President has been taken hostage. An emissary of the inmates, named Romero (Frank Doubleday), appears and tells Hauk and the soldiers that they have the President and if they do not leave the island in 30 seconds, the President will be killed. Romero offers them one of the President's severed fingers as evidence. With no other choice, Hauk orders his men to return to the helicopters and they fly back to Liberty Island. In his office, Hauk meets with the recently arrived Secretary of State (Charles Cypress) who puts him in telephone contact with the Vice President in Washington DC where Hauk asks for authorization of a rescue attempt and accepts it.

    In his office, Hauk offers a deal to a newly arrived prisoner, a scruffy, one-eyed, famous special-forces-soldier-turned-armed-robber named S.D. "Snake" Plissken (Kurt Russell). Plissken prefers to be called "Snake", growling his demand whenever Hauk refers to him by his surname. If Snake rescues the President, and retrieves a cassette tape that contains important information on nuclear fusion, Hauk will give him a full pardon. However, Snake Plissken must complete his mission before the international summit that the President was due to attend, which begins in 24 hours. After Snake Plissken reluctantly agrees to the rescue plan, Hauk secretly has him injected with microscopic explosives that will blow open his carotid arteries in 24 hours (one day). The explosives cannot be defused until within 15 minutes before they go off, as a way of ensuring that Snake does not abandon his mission and escape, nor find another way to remove them. If he returns with the President and the tape in time for the summit, Hauk will save him by having the charges in his neck neutralized with X-rays. A furious Snake gruffly promises to kill Hauk when he returns.

    Snake covertly lands atop the World Trade Center in a Gulfire glider similar to the one he piloted in a daring covert operations action over Leningrad, USSR, and then locates the hijacked plane wreckage and the escape pod, but the President is gone. Snake tracks the President's life-monitor bracelet signal to the basement of an abandoned theater, only to find it on the wrist of an incoherent old coot (George "Buck" Flower). At the theater, Snake meets a friendly inmate nicknamed "Cabbie" (Ernest Borgnine), who offers to help.

    After wandering the dark streets, Snake is accosted by the 'Crazies' a subterranean gang that hunts the streets at night. Snake first seeks refuge in an abandoned Chock Full O' Nuts diner where he meets a seductive young woman (Season Hubley), who asks to take her away to freedom. But the Crazies soon attack the diner, and Snake is forced to run, leaving the nameless young woman to her fate at the hands of the Crazies. After a chase down a back alley, Cabbie shows up in his taxi and rescues Snake, fighting the Crazies off with a Molotov cocktail.

    Snake demands Cabbie tell him where the President is being held. Cabbie tells him that Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), a savvy and well-educated inmate, knows. Cabbie takes Snake to the New York Public Library where Brain lives, a place he's turned into a veritable fortress. It is here that Snake identifies Brain as a former accomplice of his named Harold Helman, from some heists they did in the past. Forced at gunpoint, Brain tells Snake that a powerful gang leader, the self-proclaimed "Duke of New York" (Isaac Hayes), and the leader of the Gypsies, the largest and most powerful gang in the city, has the President and plans to lead a mass escape across the mined and heavily guarded 69th Street Bridge (the real Queensboro Bridge is the 59th Street Bridge), using the President as a human shield and hostage. When the Duke unexpectedly arrives, with a large convoy of henchmen, to get a diagram of the bridge's land mines, Snake forces Brain and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) to lead him back to The Duke's compound. After stealing a car from one of the Duke's henchmen, Snake, Brain, and Maggie drive through Skulls gang country along Broadway, barely escaping. Snake finds the President who is being held in an abandoned railroad car in what was the Grand Central Train Station, but his rescue fails and he is captured after Brain betrays Snake.

    The next day, Snake is forced to fight with a giant power-house brute (Ox Baker). At the same time, Brain and Maggie trick Romero and the Duke's men into letting them have access to the President. After killing Romero and the guards, they free the President and flee to Snake's glider hoping to escape with the President. Meanwhile, Snake defeats his huge opponent, impressing the crowd. When the Duke learns the President has escaped with Brain, he is furious, and he rounds up his gang to chase them down. In the confusion, Snake slips away and manages to catch up with Brain, Maggie and the President at the glider, but during their attempted getaway, a gang of inmates, called the Indians, push it off the building. Snake and the others soon find Cabbie, and Snake takes the wheel of his cab, heading for the bridge. When Cabbie reveals that he has the nuclear fusion tape (traded to him from Romero who guarded the President), the President demands it, but Snake takes it for insurance.

    With the Duke chasing them in his Cadillac, Snake and the others drive over the mine-strewn bridge. After the cab hits a land mine, the cab is destroyed and Cabbie is killed. As the others flee on foot, Brain is killed by a mine and Maggie refuses to leave him. She attempts to hold off the Duke's car by firing at him with a handgun, and she succeeds in forcing Duke's car (a distinctive vehicle with ornate chandeliers mounted on either side of the car's hood) to crash, but he crashes into her, killing her, and he continues his pursuit on foot. Snake and the President reach the containment wall, and the guards raise the President on a rope. The Duke then attacks Snake, but the President shoots the Duke with a sub-machine gun, killing him out of revenge for torturing him during his confinement. Snake is then lifted to safety, and the mini-explosives implanted in his neck are deactivated with X-rays with seconds to spare.

    At Liberty Island, as the President prepares for a televised speech, he distractedly thanks Snake for saving him. Snake asks him how he feels about the numerous men and women who died saving his life, but the President only offers half-hearted regret that visibly disgusts Snake as he sees the President, a trembling and helpless captive, revert back to his self-assured personality. After Snake is pardoned, he decides he will not kill Hauk at this time and leaves the prison. Hauk thanks him for the rescue, and offers the incredulous anti-hero a job of working for the government in other top secret missions. Snake, alienated with the nation he once served with honor, refuses. Hauk tells Snake to think about the offer and notes: "We make quite a team! Huh, Snake?" In complete contrast to Snake earlier and frequently reminding Hauk to call him by his first name, Snake angrily replies: "The name's Plissken!"

    The President's speech commences and he offers the content of the cassette to the summit. To the President's embarrassment, the tape has been switched for a cassette of the swing song "Bandstand Boogie" (the theme from American Bandstand), Cabbie's favorite song. Snake had apparently switched tapes during the chase across the bridge. In the distance unnoticed just outside the Liberty Island prison gate, Snake is seen casually unwinding and tearing apart the all-important nuclear fusion cassette tape (the only thing to save mankind from nuclear war) and smiling while puffing on a cigarette as he walks off into the night. On that cynical note, 'Escape from New York' comes to a close.

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