That 'Cool Bad Guy' Is Back (The Kansas City Star/Aug 09/1996/US) By Ward W. Triplett III


John Carpenter was on the phone from Los Angeles, a city he gleefully destroys in his new movie, talking about a character he was once gleefully willing to forget.

"I didn't want to do a sequel for a long time... as far as I was concerned we had done that. I just didn't want to go back to it.' 'But as the trailers to Escape From L.A. so loudly proclaim, Snake is back... 15 years after Escape From New York became one of the first action hits of the '80s.

The movie, which opens today, stars Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, a "really cool bad guy,'' Carpenter says. "He's an incorruptible hero, who would never go back on his beliefs... except he doesn't believe in anything but the next 60 seconds.'' In the original, which was set in 1997, New York City had been turned into a giant maximum-security prison, the worst possible place for Air Force One to crash. Plissken was dropped into New York City to rescue the president, and to keep him honest, the authorities injected him with a poison only they could negate after he accomplished the mission.

It was a fine idea for what Carpenter, 48, has called his version of a western, the lone gun against a posse of impossible villains. It was shot on a modest budget of $7 million in St. Louis and had the good fortune to find an audience on screen and then as one of the early action films available to a still-new video market.

It helped Russell break out of his image as a Disney nice guy and gave Carpenter a credit that wasn't about horror; though he had made his name with Assault on Precinct 13, he was known for the likes of Halloween and The Fog. It was such a fine idea that Carpenter really did consider it a closed book. Neither he nor Russell even talked about a sequel until 1985, and that didn't go very far.

"Kurt and I were on an airplane coming back from a junket and asked each other why didn't we do one?'' he said. "We decided we would if we could come up with something interesting about L.A. that hadn't been done before, where we could do to L.A. what we had done to New York.'' It took nine years for the idea to gestate as each went on with his respective career. Then in late 1994 they realized the idea was literally shaking beneath their feet all along.

"We got hit with a lot of natural catastrophes here in Los Angeles that you guys in the Midwest don't understand,'' he said.

"Things like earthquakes, fires, mudslides, riots... this is the desert out here and we're on the edge of the apocalypse. That being the case, we thought, now we have an idea...'' So it is that Escape From L.A., set in 2013, begins with the big one - an earthquake levels Los Angeles, separating most of what tourists recognize as L.A. from the mainland. The president is now the fundamentalist preacher who had predicted this disaster, and he's ordered every moral offender to live on the island L.A. has become.

The city is still ravaged by the same natural forces, as well as being a completely lawless place, the worst kind of place for a stolen military device to be. Once again, enter Plissken.

A lot of things have changed in 15 years. Russell is now enough of a star to command a salary said to be above $10 million; Escape From L.A cost just over $50 million, though ironically that makes it modest by today's standards. Audience expectations have changed, too. There have been a lot of Rambos since Snake slithered away.

"Because it's been so long, we had to do try a couple of different things,'' Carpenter said. "We assume there's an audience that doesn't know the first film. We had to reinvent the whole thing for them, and yet not alienate the old Escape fans.

"Then since we were doing a sequel, we had to ask how much of a tone of the first one do we use? How much do we try to change? What are the issues involved? We sort of felt our way along.'' Snake does have another gang to shoot his way through, but the real bad guy in "L.A.'' is the fundamentalist president whose idea of compassion is to offer those sentenced to the island a chance to be executed first.

When his daughter rebels against him, he declares her lost to him and sentences her to death. The America he leads in "L.A.'' is as much of a mind-controlled society as portrayed in Carpenter's 1988 film They Live, which was also partly inspired by his concern over the "fascist'' tones in the fundamentalist agenda.

"I don't think it's ever going to happen, thank God,'' Carpenter says of his right-wing takeover scenario. "But there is a movement afoot now called dominion theology - the idea is to return America to a theocracy, where the Ten Commandments are the law of the land. It's not a joke. Neither are the militias, or the burning of the churches, or the terrorism. Is it going to happen? No. But is it real? Yeah. ''