In 1988, during a war with China and the Soviet Union, the US government has turned Manhattan into a maximum-security prison because of a 400% increase in crime. A 50-foot wall surrounds the city, the bridges have been mined, the rivers are patrolled by helicopters, and prisoners serve life terms. The US President John Harker (Donald Pleasance) is on his way to a peace summit in Hartford, Connecticut, when Air Force One is hijacked by the National Liberation Front. His protectors give him a tracking bracelet, handcuff him to his briefcase, and launch him in an escape pod. The plane crashes but the pod lands in New York.
Romero (Frank Doubleday), the right-hand man of the crime-boss Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), announces that the President has been captured and will die if a rescue attempt is made. Police Commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) offers a deal to ex-soldier and prisoner Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). If he rescues the President before the peace summit, all is forgiven. Just so he won’t go rogue, he is injected with micro-explosives, which will go off in 22 hours unless he returns with the President and has them deactivated.
He uses a glider to land on the roof of the World Trade Center and follows the tracking bracelet to a vaudeville theater, where he finds the bracelet on a deluded old man. He radios Hauk but is told he will be shot down if he returns without the President. He meets Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), who drives an armored taxi and takes Snake to see Harry “Brain” Hellman (Harry Dean Stanton), advisor to the Duke and Snake’s old friend. Brain has built an oil well and a refinery and is doing well. Duke plans a mass escape across the Queensborough Bridge with the President as a human shield.
Snake forces Brain and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau, of course) to lead him to Duke’s hideout in Grand Central Terminal. There, he finds the President, but is captured and forced to fight against Slag (wrestler Ox Baker). Brain and Maggie kill Romero and take the President. After killing Slag, Snake brings them to the top of the World Trade Center, trying to escape in the glider. A gang pushes it off the building. They return to the street and Cabbie agrees to take them across the bridge. He has the contents of the briefcase, including a cassette tape with information about nuclear fusion which was intended to be an international peace offering.
Duke pursues them onto the bridge in his customized Cadillac, setting off mines. Cabbie is killed and Maggie is run over and killed as well. Snake and the President reach the wall and the President is hauled up. Duke opens fire, killing the guards, but Snake subdues him. He is about to shoot Snake as he is hauled up, but the President grabs a rifle and shoots Duke. Hauk shuts off the explosives in Snake’s body with seconds to spare. As the President prepares a speech, he thanks Snake and the others who saved him, but has no interest in helping them. Snake buggers off and when the President plays the tape, it’s Cabbie’s favorite music. Snakes pulls out the real tape and throws it away.
The film was co-written, co-scored, and directed by John Carpenter. He wrote it in the mid-Seventies after the Watergate scandal. He was given pretty much everything he wanted after the success of Halloween. It was produced by Debra Hill and Larry J. Franco, and was co-written by Nick Castle, who had played Michael Myers in Halloween. It was popular with critics and fans and was nominated for four Saturn Awards. It was followed by Escape from LA in 1996, which was not received nearly as well, but there were Marvel comics background stories, and even a board game. The opening narration and the police computer were voiced by Jamie Lee Curtis. The model of New York was later used in Blade Runner.
The moneymen had wanted Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones to play Snake, but Carpenter demanded Kurt Russell, who desperately needed a change from the lightweight Disney comedies he was doing, and he trained extensively to build up muscle. Russell came up with the idea of the eye-patch and modelled his voice after Clint Eastwood. It was shot in East Saint Louis, Illinois, which looked like a warzone. Carpenter persuaded the city to switch off electricity ten blocks at a time. Matte paintings were made by James Cameron, who was working for Roger Corman. Donald Pleasance used his prisoner of war memories in his portrayal of the captive President.