Russell's In A Venomous Mood (The Windsor Star/Aug 09/1996/CA) By Jamie Portman

Kurt Russell sits hunched over the interview table, defiantly brandishing a cigarette and denouncing a system that he says is taking away his personal freedom.

He feels his diatribe is relevant to the reason he's here this morning - to discus the return to the big screen of Snake Plissken, the scowling, anti-social desperado he first portrayed 15 years ago in the futuristic adventure, Escape From New York.

Escape From L.A. which opens today at the Devonshire cinema in Windsor, marks Russell's latest collaboration with his favorite director, John Carpenter who directed the earlier film as well. But Russell is also reprising his favorite character, complete with black eye-patch, grungy wardrobe and rottweiler disposition. And he says that if Snake really existed, he would hate the America today.

He'd be infuriated by society's gang-up on tobacco, which is certainly kindling Russell's fury as he talks to the press this morning.

"I can't smoke in a Los Angeles bar," he complains and then adds that Toronto has instituted a similar ban. To him, that means one of his favorite cities is "now on the way down."

"So I'm going to kill myself with #!*#%*!# things!" He jabs his cigarette into the ashtray. "But in the constitution where does it talk about a safety net? Where is the minister of fun in this country? It's all about living longer and safer - and yes, there's a value to that and I certainly understand that. But there's also a greater value - to me, it's getting something out of life and at least making it my choice. I thought that's what this country is about. How far are we from where you can't smoke - period?"

Carpenter's longtime producing partner, Debra Hill, says Snake is "the meanest, baddest, anti-hero on the screen today." But Russell says that if Snake has an attitude problem, it's because the system is trying to push him around and tell him what to do.

"Nobody is as socially unredeemable as Snake Plissken," the 45-year-old actor says approvingly.

In the 1981 Escape From New York, this surly character - a condemned criminal and war hero - is offered his freedom if he can rescue the kidnapped U.S. president from the island of Manhattan, which has turned into a walled prison.

In Escape From L.A., another president is in power and he represents everything Snake hates. As portrayed by Cliff Robertson, the current incumbent is a tight-lipped fanatic who has declared the United States a land of "moral superiority" and has banned red meat, religious freedom, unapproved marriages - and, naturally, smoking.

These laws apply everywhere except Los Angeles. A massive earthquake has destroyed this city and left it completely surrounded by water, so the president deports all immoral citizens to this foreboding place which has become a hotbed of anarchy.

In the new movie - co-scripted by Russell, Carpenter and Hill - Snake is once more in captivity and is again offered his freedom if he is able to penetrate this hellhole and track down the president's rebellious daughter. She has vanished into L.A. along with the key to a Doomsday device capable of destroying the modern world.

Russell and Carpenter keep insisting that Escape From L.A. is escapist fantasy. But they also concede it's a cautionary tale about the legacy of authoritarian government.

Carpenter, a director whose liberal leanings have surfaced in several of his films, cheerfully says he'll have no quarrel with the moviegoers who see his new film as an assault on the right wing of the Republican party and such conservative icons as Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan.

Russell's attitude is more complicated because he can't stand either the Republicans or the Democrats. He's a proud member of the fringe Libertarian party which may not even have a presidential candidate in this year's election.

Russell is wary of anyone in a position of power. "Any political dealings in the script have to do with the ridiculousness we have arrived at on both the conservative and liberal side of the scale," he says. In other words, a U.S. president who's both pro-family and anti-red meat and tobacco represents the worst of both extremes.

Untamed rebel

Russell loves Snake not only because he's an untamed rebel but also because the character helped him dump his previous image as a popular Disney child actor and achieve credibility as an adult action hero.

The character means so much to him that when sequel time came along, he retrieved Snake's original 1981 costume from his closet and lost the necessary pounds to wear it again.

But he would never have won the role of Snake if John Carpenter, who had earlier directed him in a television biography of Elvis Presley, hadn't believed in him. In fact, Carpenter had to fight hard 16 years ago to get approval to cast Russell as Snake and buck a studio that was demanding the 60-year-old Charles Bronson play the role.

"So John is absolutely the most important director in my career," says Russell, who was 30 when he did the first film. "He fought for me to do Escape From New York and then The Thing. If I hadn't done those, I don't think I ever would have been able to establish myself as a person who could do action movies."