Here Snake Comes To Save The Day (Orange County Register/Aug 06/1996/US) By Barry Koltnow

The riots didn't do it. The Northridge quake didn't do it. The brush fires didn't do it. The inevitable mudslides didn't do it. The endless drive-by shootings didn't do it.

But O.J., that did it.

It was the O.J. Simpson episode that finally persuaded director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell to use Los Angeles as the backdrop for their sequel to the 1981 hit Escape From New York.

"We had been considering which city we were going to do the sequel in for 15 years, and over the years, Los Angeles was becoming a great city to escape from," Russell said recently in his Los Angeles hotel suite.

"When O.J. hit the freeway - bingo. We knew we had it. L.A. had become the place that was too weird not to mess with in a movie."

The movie, of course, is Escape From L.A., and its opening Friday had been anxiously awaited by Snake Plisskin fans since the original action film ascended to cult-hit status with the advent of the home video market.

Russell's Plisskin, a tougher-than-nails former military hero and now everybody's favorite antihero, has a reputation for doing the impossible. Once again, he is asked to save the day in this newest adventure.

In what amounts to a sendup of their original movie, Russell and Carpenter send Plisskin into a no-man's land to rescue the president's daughter and a device that can change the course of history.

The no-man's land is created when a 9.6 quake separates L.A. and Orange County from the rest of the continent and turns it into an evil place filled with gun-toting gang members, knife-wielding plastic surgeons and... well, now you understand why they picked L.A.

In the futuristic original, Plisskin was sent into Manhattan - which had been transformed into a penal colony - to locate and retrieve the kidnapped president of the United States.

"In any sequel," Carpenter said, "the trick is to satisfy the audience's desire for the same thing as the original, only different.

"We were always aware that most of our audience on this one probably never saw the original, so we needed to invent this world all over again. At the same time, we couldn't go too far or we'd alienate our fans from the original."

Russell, 45, said he and Carpenter, 48, have debated the wisdom of making a sequel since the original but were not sure there was a demand for it. As the original got more and more popular on video, the demand became clear.

"Not only was everyone talking about a sequel, but I wanted to play Snake again," the burly actor said. "I like the character. He's one of a kind. He's the last incorruptible man on Earth. He's the only character I've ever wanted to play again."

Escape From L.A. is Russell's first foray into the treacherous world of sequels, where wallets and egos are fattened but industry status is often deflated. No one is more aware of this than Russell.

He started in films three decades ago as a child actor working in Disney movies, managed to survive a rough period in the 1980s and now has risen to genuine superstar status, commanding double-digit salaries (he reportedly got $10 million for this film and as much as $15 million for his next film, Breakdown).

That kind of change in status does not come by accident; Russell is not embarrassed to admit that he sought this kind of attention and is proud that he accomplished it.

"In 1988, I had just completed a bunch of films, including Winter People, Best of Times and Overboard (with longtime partner Goldie Hawn), that had not done well at the box office," he explained.

"But I was happy in my life. I was doing the films I wanted to do and getting paid $1.5 million for each one. That's a lot of money for a pure actor. I'll bet I was the highest-paid pure actor in town. I knew they were hiring me as an actor because I knew I wasn't being hired for my box-office appeal.

"Then, for no apparent reason, I decided that I might as well try for something else. I just thought it was worth a try to align myself with some of the people Hollywood thought so highly of, and maybe do something about my reputation as box-office poison."

Russell immediately aligned himself with director Robert Towne and stars Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer in Tequila Sunrise. It worked. Then came Tango & Cash with Sylvester Stallone, which made more than $200 million worldwide.

"When Backdraft came out, it did $17 million the first weekend and was considered a disappointment," Russell said. "I knew I had achieved my goal. If I could be in a film that made $17 million and was still a disappointment, then Hollywood must think highly of me."

The town really liked what it saw when Russell starred in the sci-fi movie Stargate, - a surprise hit - anointing the pure actor as the newest action superstar.

With Escape From L.A. released and Breakdown completed, Russell says he is doing something he has always wanted to do - retire.

Well, it's only an 18-month retirement, but he's serious about it.

"I was looking for one big payday, and then I wanted to take some time off to live my life and spend time with my kids," he said. "I know this sounds like a selfish thing to do, but I've paid my dues. I've earned the right to be selfish."

But don't fret, Kurt Russell fans. The guy's selfish, not stupid. The minute his "retirement" ends in September 1997, he begins work on his next action film, Soldier.