In a dystopian 1997, World War III is nearing an end, both the United States and the still existant Soviet Union suffered greatly in the conflict and both looking for a peace resolution. Manhattan becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country 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.
A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem river, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison: only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple. Once you go in, you don't come out. All inmates are sentenced to life imprisonment, and have formed gangs which control the crumbling, garbage-strewn city.
Statue of Liberty Security Control (SLSC) at Liberty Island: A Jeep pulls up outside the base. It comes to a stop and the driver pulls out a walkie-talkie reporting an escape in progress. Two guards watch for the escapees in question. A helicopter flies over the bay towards Manhattan Island. The two escapees paddle, trying to get across the bay.
The search light whites out the screen. The two escapees continue paddling. They've been caught. The pilot targets the boat on a computer screen in front of him. Two shots are fired directly in front of the escapees as a warning. They ignore them and continue paddling away from the island. The pilot fires again, the boat explodes. The helicopter returns to the base.
Just outside the SLSC base, Chief of Security Rehme (Tom Atkins) waits as a limo pulls up. Out steps Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef). Rehme reports they have a small jet in trouble, over restricted air space, seven miles out and closing. Entering the base, Hauk and Rehme walk down the stairs and walk into the Air Traffic Room. Dozens of men sit in front of radar transmission screens, wearing headsets and working. Rehme informs Hauk there was a transmission ten minutes ago, identified as "David 14," then all of a sudden he was cut off.
Hauk and Rehme stand behind a Controller who repeats calls to David 14. Rehme states there is no code David 14 on computer, they telexed Washington, and still waiting for a reply. The Controller finally makes a connection. Hauk and Rehme walk back over to the controller. He patches a voice-over through. A Rebel's voice announces nothing can save "him". They are going to crash.
The Codeman reports that the code is coming in. Hauk and Rehme dash over to the Codeman. He shows them a display. "Aircraft Identified. Code: David14. Decode: AIR FORCE ONE." "Air Force One" blinks as Hauk and Rehme look at each other in shock.
Air Force One is flying over New York. The Rebel has killed the pilot and copilot. The Rebel pulls out a slip of paper and proceeds to read: We, the soldiers of the national liberation front of America, in the name of the workers and all the oppressed of this imperialist country have struck a fatal blow to the racist police stick! What better revolutionary example than to let the president perish in the inhuman dungeon of his own imperialist prison? A Secret Service Agent taps on the door with his rifle. He runs back down the plane to the President (Donald Pleasence) and his advisers.
He orders a second Agent to go unlock the pod. Realizing there's no way to force the cockpit door open, the President handcuffs his briefcase to his wrist. The President and all his advisors stand up and head for the pod at the back of the plane. In Pod Room, the pod opens. An expert attaches a locating device to the President's wrist, a locating device to trace the President if he becomes separated from the pod. The pod is activated. Screens on the pod begin to light up as the President gets into the pod. He pushes a few buttons and bids farewell.
At the SLSC base, a guard watches as Air Force One descends into New York. Rehme and Hauk watch a computer simulation tracking Air Force One. The plane goes down. On the monitors, as the plane smashes into a building, a red dot drops through the building, 40 degrees, 50 yards from impact. Hauk announces he's going in. Helicopters prepare for, and execute, launch, and fly into New York. A guard watches them and Rehme watches the monitors. The helicopters land.
A swarm of policemen run out, and Hauk hangs back. He follows with a second swarm. The first swarm assumes a defensive position near the pod. Hauk examines the pod. It's definitely empty, and the rest of the jet is surrounded in flames. An odd laugh comes from nowhere. Romero (Frank Doubleday), an emissary of the inmates, walks out of the darkness. He tells Hauk that they have the President and if they do not leave the island in 30 seconds, the President will be killed.
Romero takes a package out of his shirt and unwraps it to reveal the President's middle finger, complete with ring. With no other choice, Hauk orders his men to return to the helicopters. Romero grins in triumph as the police force swarms back to the helicopters and hauls ass out of New York.
Back at the base, Hauk is in the foreground, looking pensive. Hauk meets with the arrived Secretary of State (Charles Cypress) who puts him in telephone contact with the Vice President where Hauk asks for authorization of a rescue attempt, the VP gives him the green light.
In his office, Hauk calmly arms a .45 pistol. He looks up from his desk. Security Guards escort a prisoner into his office. We see the silhouette of an unmistakable figure. It's Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) all right, live and in the flesh. The guards leave. Snake walks into Hauk's office and sits down in the chair across from Hauk. He raises his cuffed hands to Hauk as if to say "Take these off me, asshole," but he doesn't actually say anything. Hauk shakes his head, "I'm not a fool, Plissken." Plissken states with coooool, "Call me Snake."
Hauk puts on his glasses and proceeds to read a file: S.D. Plissken. American Lieutenant. Special Forces Unit, Black Flight. Two Purple Hearts, Leningrad and Siberia. Youngest man to be decorated by the President. You robbed the federal reserve depository. Life sentence, New York Maximum Security Penitentiary. Snake could not care less. He reaches forward with his still-cuffed right hand, picks up a cigarette, picks up a match with his left hand, strikes the match and takes a drag from his cigarette. He lets out a calm breath.
Hauk offers Plissken a deal: a full pardon for every criminal act committed in the United States. Hauk shows Snake the pardon. Snake's eye lights up. This is something he wants. He's interested now, and can't hide it. Hauk explain the President's situation. Snake is to go in, find the President and bring him out in 24 hours, and he is a free man. We sense amusement from Snake. This is not the first time the government has asked him for a favor. But he's not a soldier or a "War Hero" anymore.
He knows they need him more than he needs their pardon. He's holding the cards now, and he knows it. Plissken must complete his mission before the international summit that the President was due to attend, which begins in 24 hours. Snake asks why him. Hauk explains that Snake flew the Gullfire (glider) over Leningrad. He knows how to get in quiet. Plissken figures he goes in one way or the other, doesn't mean shit to him and reluctantly agrees to attempt the rescue.