The year is 1997 and the walled-off city of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison for all of society's rejects. While en route to a summit meeting, Air Force One is hijacked with the President (Donald Pleasence) aboard. It crashes in New York, and he is taken captive by Duke (Isaac Hayes), the city's macho leader.

The Commissioner for the United States Police Force (Lee Van Cleef) promises Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a recently convicted master criminal, liberty if he will bring the President out in 24 hours. Just to make sure he doesn't try to escape during the mission, they place explosives in his neck timed to go off at the end of the allotted period. In the garbage and desolate city, Plissken runs into an old accomplice (Harry Dean Stanton), his moll (Adrienne Barbeau), and his cabbie (Ernest Borgnine). They help him out for selfish reasons.

Escape from New York moves swiftly and succeeds as a taut drama. Kurt Russell is top-notch as the archetypal outsider who hates the Duke as much as he despises the Police Commissioner. He's a modern-day gladiator who is unwilling to pay allegiance to anyone or anything except his instincts. Carpenter makes excellent use of his own electronic music, cleverly designed sets which suggest the hazards of a rundown urban environment, and a series of well-executed and terrifying stunts.