'Coolest Bad Guy' Snake Is Back (Houston Chronicle/Aug 10/1996/US) By Louis B. Parks


It's the name. Snake Plissken. Sounds dangerous, like the hiss of a viper before it strikes.

And the clothes. Black leather. Muscle shirt. An eye patch. Hideaway weapons.

Don't forget the hair, shaggy and grungy on top, scraggly on the chin.

All those are important. But what really made Snake Plissken - the reluctant rescuer of Escape From New York and its new sequel, Escape From L.A. - into a cult favorite is what always makes or breaks blue-collar action heroes: attitude.

Snake has attitude to burn, baby.

"He's socially unredeemed. That's the key," says Kurt Russell, who plays Plissken in both movies. "Snake doesn't have a wife who was tortured, or a family that he lost. He was destined to be this angry, sad, funny guy."

It's Snake, more than anything, that will have Escape From New York fans lining up to see Escape From L.A.

"Our character is the draw for the audience," says Plissken's co-creator, director/writer John Carpenter. "He's the coolest bad guy there is. He's incorruptible, a Western outlaw. He taps into a cynical vein in the culture right now. Everyone is cheering for him to shut down things in the end. Isn't that weird?"

Talk to Russell and you soon realize portraying Snake is also the main attraction for him.

"He's a unique person, an alter ego, that John Carpenter and I share," Russell says. "(In any scenario) we both know exactly what Snake would say. I like doing him in front of John. I like doing him for John. John and I get a kick out of him."

It's easy to appreciate Russell's feelings about acting for Carpenter. While Russell's personal life has been tied to actress Goldie Hawn for more than a decade, his career and success have been closely linked to Carpenter since 1979.

When Russell was still stuck with the stereotype of Disney child-star, it was Carpenter who gave him his big break. He directed the then 28-year-old actor in the TV film Elvis, and suddenly people forgot Russell's roles in The Absent Minded Professor and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.

"Elvis was visible enough to completely crack the mold," says the actor.

And it was Carpenter who gave him his first distinct feature role in Escape From New York in 1981.

"No one in this town was going to offer me a role like Snake Plissken except John," Russell says. "I have done four things that have (a cult) audience, three of them with John: Elvis, Escape From New York and (1982's) The Thing. When people talk to me about those movies, they are devoted to them."

However, it wasn't until Backdraft (1989) and what Russell considers his fourth cult film, Tombstone, in 1993, that he had big box office hits and his career really took off.

In Escape From New York, people are always telling Plissken they thought he was dead. When asked if his career didn't resemble Plissken's, often apparently dead, Russell gives a hearty chuckle. He admits he could have chosen more commercial roles.

"I've never really looked at things from a personal standpoint," he says. "Just at what I could do (talent-wise) and what I wanted to do. At times, that took me a direction they didn't think I should go. My whole life is being true to myself. To a fault. I don't know how not to be."

Russell figures his choices the last eight years have worked out well for his career. He's mostly had successes in that time. Tombstone, Stargate (1994) and Executive Decision (1996) gave him three hits in a row.

He's on a roll that he hopes Escape From L.A. will continue. It may be a bit too eccentric or plain weird for mainstream audiences, but no one can accuse Russell and Carpenter of playing it safe.

Escape From L.A. is really an extravagant $50 million remake of the $7 million Escape From New York. In a grim near future, earthquakes have made Los Angeles an island of toppled buildings. The right-wing president of the United States (Cliff Robertson) has made it a concentration camp for dissidents.

Plissken is forced to enter the island and rescue/kidnap the president's daughter, a defector from his theocracy. To make sure Plissken cooperates, a virus is injected in his body. It will kill him if he's not back in 10 hours for the antidote.

Outrageous is the operative word here. Snake surfing down L.A. streets and hang-gliding into an army of machine-gunning baddies are just two of the comic-book action scenes.

"I don't know that I'd say it's tongue-in-cheek, but it's certainly funnier," Carpenter says. "It's more outrageous and absurdist humor than anything else. It's fun.

"In the first film, there was a lot of humor. People took it seriously. They hadn't seen anything like it, the apocalyptic landscape of New York. It was very much of its time. That was during the Iranian hostage crisis and was taken much more seriously."

Russell and Carpenter co-wrote this movie with producer Debra Hill. Carpenter usually did the scenario; Russell would do the dialogue. Carpenter said Russell wrote all of the super-cynical last scene.

"John and I are making the movie that we enjoy doing, regardless of what the audience might like to see," Russell says. "If we can do something true to ourselves, hopefully our talent will be out there enough to allow the audience to feel the same thing.

"When we go to work, we are having a blast, constantly trying to think of things we think fit that show and character and that move the story. If the audience is disappointed in that, maybe 15 years down the road they will change their minds."

Which brings up the question of why 15 years passed between the original and the sequel. Part of this was because Escape From New York did not really find its audience until it hit television and video. And then Russell and Carpenter were both too busy with other projects.

"We first talked about a sequel in 1985," Carpenter says. "We noodled around with a story but could never come up with a reason to escape from L.A."

In 1994 Russell went to Europe and was surprised to find everyone asking about a sequel to Escape From New York. And people were asking him to play Snake in their movies. Then there came a period in which all sorts of disasters hit Los Angeles.

"Fires, floods, earthquakes, O.J., you know it, it hit Los Angeles," Russell says.

At the same time, Tombstone and Stargate made Russell an A-list actor who could get a film financed just by agreeing to be in it.

"And I said, 'I'm not getting any younger. If we're going to do this, we need to do it right now,' " Russell says.

He and Carpenter sat down and started writing with the full understanding there were no studio commitments.

"We wanted to be able to say, when we were on Page 55, 'This is not going anywhere, let's drop this idea once and for all. Let's leave it alone,' " Russell says.

"We got to Page 75 and were saying, 'Man, I like this better than the original.' We were having more fun than ever."

As in the first film, Plissken remains a mystery. We have almost no background on him.

"That was always intentional," Russell says. "We have (created a background) and we remain true to it, but only John and I know it, and we leave it there. Hollywood is an illusion factory and that's basically magic. For magicians to show people the tricks ends up not serving the magician or the audience."