'Escape' Artist (San Antonio Express-News/Aug 02/1996/US) By Larry Ratliff


LOS ANGELES - Perhaps it is the ironic nature of his life as a filmmaker and Californian that has turned 48-year-old John Carpenter's hair whiter than the Bride of Frankenstein's on her wedding night.

Carpenter is a deep thinker who lands, more often than not, on the side of rebellion. He's obviously out of place tooting his own horn for Escape From L.A., his sequel to the 1981 futuristic-thriller Escape From New York.

In the new one, which returns Kurt Russell to the one-man wrecking machine persona he created in the original, Los Angeles is split off from the rest of the oppressed United States by the Big One, an earthquake that rocked the Richter Scale at 9.6.

Carpenter, a Kentuckian by birth, is a transplanted Californian who knew when the time was right to trash L.A., just like Escape From New York made cinematic mincemeat of the Big Apple 15 years earlier.

"We have had visited upon us a lot of catastrophes over the past few years: the biggest riot in U.S. history, earthquakes and every year our hills catch on fire.

"It's the greatest place to live. I mean I wouldn't want to move. Yet, at the same time I know, I'm told that it's inevitable that the hammer of God will strike this place one day and devastate it. And yet here I am, by the pool, saying, 'Ah, great,' " he said, nervously facing a small group of film journalists in a Beverly Hills hotel suite.

Carpenter's iconoclastic spirit emerged - make that was encouraged - even in childhood. He grew up the only child of a music professor in Bowling Green, Ky.

"My dad said to me as soon as I was able to understand the language, 'Man, I want you to get as independent as you can as fast as you can. You start questioning me... don't do everything I say."

That streak of stubborn independence has formed an ironic core in one of Hollywood's finest directors of violent sci-fi and fantasy. Don't look for too many traits of Escape's Snake Plissken in the real Kurt Russell. The guy behind the camera with the flowing gray hair is Snake's true alter-ego.

"I have this hatred of authority that has just never gone away," he said.

How then has the creative force behind such films as Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982) and Starman (1984) managed to repeatedly grab the reins of major motion pictures in a town governed by good ol' boy politics.

"That's a very good question. The truth is, if a studio head asks me nicely, I'll do anything they want. I want to please my bosses," he said. "You come and try to pull a power game on me, though, I'll take you down."

Someone must have asked very nicely about continuing the saga of Snake Plissken. There may have been imitators to Russell's brand of ruthless freedom fighter, but no one has managed, so far at least, to duplicate the essence of Snake.

"Most action films are very patriotic and very straightforward," Carpenter said. "Every hero is always defending his cause. He's always defending some good, some poor innocent person. Even when they take the law in their own hands, they're good guys.

"Our hero is a psychopath. He doesn't care about you; he would just as soon kill you. He's a snake!

"The only way you can get him to do anything is force him to do it with his life. If you threaten to kill him, if he has no way out, then he'll do it. But, boy, you better hope he doesn't make it back."

Carpenter is prepared for those who say Escape From L.A. bears an awful lot of similarities to the original.

"We had a big discussion with the studio about this movie and about what sequels mean. When you make a sequel, what the audience is looking for is the same thing, but different whatever that means. 'Since it's been so long since the first movie, the majority of the (today's) audience has not seen it,' he said. 'We decided that what we were going to do was make a film that stands on its own for a new audience and still resonates for the people who have seen the original.'