The year is 1997 (the future) and the island of Manhattan has been turned into the world’s biggest free-for-all maximum security prison.
There’s only one man tough enough to run it – Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) – as opposed to former Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke who used to cry regularly on TV.
The fascist police stay outside, quartered (ironically enough) on Liberty Island.
When Air Force One is hijacked and the president (Donald Pleasence) crashes into this lawless hell, the Liberty Island cops send in the famous war hero and crook Snake Plissken (a sullen Kurt Russell impersonating Clint Eastwood and looking like Jeff Bridges gone rancid) to retrieve him – and the plans for a nuclear fusion bomb he just happens to be carrying.
With just 24 hours until the president’s vital meeting with a Chinese delegation (“You know anything about nuclear fusion?”) and only 22 hours until an injected microchip reaches his neck and blows out his arteries, Plissken doesn’t have a whole lot of options.
The crooks walled up in the city have so little humanity that most audiences would wind up rooting for the ruthless, black-shirted cops.
The closest a con comes to representing the human species is an engineer called The Brain (Harry Dean Stanton at his most comical, low-key and malevolent).
Though he holes up with a voluptuous “squeeze” (Adrienne Barbeau) in a deserted library, mostly he works for the Duke – the city’s gang warlord and the president’s captor, played by gaudy Isaac Hayes.
The Duke dresses like a turn-of-the-next-century Super Fly and conducts his affairs like a jungle chieftain.
This tough futuristic western from director John Carpenter closely resembled Carpenter’s own Assault on Precinct 13 in tone and plot dynamics, but it’s certainly the director’s slickest-looking film.
Yet, despite a marvellous night-time opening sequence, this slice of escapism often disappoints, though it rates higher than the 1996 sequel, Escape from LA.
Lee Van Cleef
Duke of New York
Harry Dean Stanton
Secretary of State