Snake Plissken Returns For More In New 'Escape' (The Herald-News/Aug 09/1996/US)
By Winnie Bonelli


Fifteen years ago, film audiences first made the acquaintance of Snake Plissken in Escape From New York. A hero-turned-criminal, Plissken's (Kurt Russell) mission was to rescue the president of the United States, who had ejected from his plane just before it crashed in the in the Big Apple, which had been turned into a maximum security prison, littered with garbage, graffiti and the nations meanest criminals.

That original 1981 film (which took place in 1997) cost a paltry
$7 million and grossed $52 million - roughly the budget for the sequel, John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. which opens today.

John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. is the ultimate action-packed adventure with a decisive edge that has legs to stand on its own. However, viewers of Escape From New York will have a hoot comparing the new chapter with the old.

Although the idea of a sequel had been tossed around for years, it was the Los Angeles earthquake in January 1994 that clinched it.

"John (Carpenter), Kurt and I got together in July at my house for about five hours," recalled co-writer and producer Debra Hill in an interview in Los Angeles. " We sat around the kitchen table and talked about how the earthquake had affected us. After the last few years in L.A., I think a lot of people have considered escape an option.

"The fires, floods, earthquakes, gangs and violence have hit all of us in a way or the other," commented Hill, a native of Haddonfield in Camden County. "It's the main subject in conversations all over town."

That was the impetus. For the next six months, Carpenter and Russell bounced ideas off each other. Then Hill, who had first teamed up with Carpenter on the 1978 horror classic Halloween, compiled those ideas into a 160-page draft. Trimming the script to 137 pages, the trio made the final commitment. "If anyone of us at any time has said 'no,' that would have been it," Russell noted.

After that, all Russell had to do was to dig into his closet and retrieve Snake's original costume - a black T-shirt with Spandex pants and mandatory eye patch.

Escape From L.A. recycles successful bits from the original and builds from there, adding surfboards, hang gliders, a Harley-Davidson and state-of-the-art props.

The film begins after a massive earthquake, "The Big One," has separated Los Angeles from the U.S. mainland in 2013. The island has become a handy depository for the county's immoral, and thus criminal, citizens.

The current president (Cliff Robertson) has declared the United States a land of moral superiority - no smoking, no read meat, no freedom of religion and no unauthorized marriages.

The president's daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), doesn't agree with her father's politics and make a beeline for L.A. and the arms of brutal South American revolutionary Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), head honcho in the anarchist state and a dead ringer for Che Guevara. The big problem (an the film's plot) is that Utopia took a little souvenir from her father - a doomsday device capable of hurling mankind back to the Stone Age.

Plissken's assignment is to retrieve the device and eliminate Utopia. To make it more urgent, the president's men (Stacy Keach and Michelle Forbes) have infected him with a deadly virus which he must get the antidote in eight hours.

"I'd spent a lot of time with the costume designer coming up with that outfit," Russell said in an L.A. interview. "As I moved, I kept throwing it in the closet. When we got this one, I put it on and found it a little tight. My reaction was, 'Hey. I'm going to have to work out and get in shape,'" he chuckled in a self-effacing manner that's become part of his public persona.

Slipping into the character was a bit easier than the pants. "I'd already spent six months writing with John," he said. "Because we had to think as Snake, I automatically had that mindset."

Plissken and Russell are such a comfortable fit that it seems a bit ironic that Carpenter actually had to buck the decision of studio executives to cast his protagonist. Originally, the studio had wanted Charles Bronson and had also wanted a prelude scene to explain Snake's sociopathic attitude. He shot it, but cut it out of the final print, preferring to cast Snake as a total enigma.

And last year, Paramount Pictures had the same question, said Russell. Their reaction to the character came down to "Hey, there's very little humanity here. He's not a guy that goes out of his way to do anything for anybody."

No argument there, said producer Hill. "Snake Plissken is one of those cult characters that seem to gather momentum with time," she said. "There is no one else in the world that can play Snake Plissken like Kurt Russell. He becomes the character. I think Snake is an extension of the dark side of Kurt. He's the meanest, baddest, antihero on the screen today."

Russell's dark side proved lucrative indeed - he was paid
$10 million for his work in the film.

"Kurt brought a lot to the table," Hill is quick to add.

Also starring are Peter Fonda as a burnt-out surfer, Steve Buscemi as the weaselly Map to the Stars Eddie, Valeria Golino as exotic Taslima, Bruce Campbell as the grisly Plastic Surgeon of Beverly Hills, and Pam Grier as the beautiful, but ambiguous, gangboss Hershe.

Although Russell strongly contends Escape From L.A. isn't a message movie, he doesn't deny there might be parallels drawn during this election year.

"I'm a Libertarian," he stated. "I don't know if John would refer to himself as a Libertarian, but he thinks like one. In writing this movie, neither one of us felt apologetic about setting up a scenario in America which I think was fun. I think a lot of people are going to take it where they want to, which is what they should do."

"Any political dealings in the script have to do with the amount of ridiculousness we have arrived at," he added. "I can't smoke in a bar... Where does it talk about that in the Constitution, about safety. Who is the Minister of Fun in this country? It's all about living longer. Safety? Yes, there's a value to that which I understand."