Bob Hauk: Remember, once you’re inside you’re on your own.
Snake Plissken: Oh, you mean I can’t count on you?
Bob Hauk: No.
Snake Plissken: Good!
Escape from New York
Somewhere between Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 80s had another action star, one that wasn’t unintelligible, one that had far fewer muscles and seemed downright average in comparison to Arnie and Sly. With three movies in a six year span Kurt Russell became America’s biggest cult badass.
First came arguably his toughest tough guy Snake Plissken in 1981’s Escape from New York. It’s hard to beat an eye patch and an abdomen snake tattoo. Plissken, a cocky prisoner, is tasked with rescuing the kidnapped President in the collapsed, criminal run New York. Following Escape from New York was Carpenter’s 1982 terrifying alien invasion remake of The Thing and finally Big Trouble in Little China in 1986.
I grew up on a steady stream of 80s action films but Escape from New York is one of my favorites. In addition to its original plot it is gritty, and wasn’t polished like other movies of that time. It was rough around the edges just like its main character and Snake Plissken captured my attention right away. It was the first time most people had seen a true anti-hero as the lead. Snake is a genuinely bad guy. The fact that director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell do next to nothing to make him sympathetic says something about the film as a whole. Escape from New York isn’t neat or pretty. Russell was able to create a character that had very few redeeming values and still manages to be compelling and he was able to make a charming and entertaining character instead of a cartoonish anti-hero.
The thing that’s always worked about Russell is his attitude. Russell specializes in the smirking, swaggering, slightly overconfident everyman. In Escape from New York there are about a million other places he would want to be – in The Thing he’s put upon, terrified and the only person on hand who can possibly deal with the unimaginable situation – and in Big Trouble in Little China he’s a truck driver tossed into a world of sorcerers and curses.
Carpenter has said that with Big Trouble in Little China he wanted Russell’s Jack Burton to be a less capable John Wayne type – someone whose maybe just a bit to confident, just a bit too sure of himself, maybe not quite as tough as he’d like people to think. In The Thing he’s the surrogate for the audience; sure he’s tough and smart but he’s just as confused and terrified as the people watching the movie.
As was the norm in the 80s when most action stars relied on their bodies and their physical presence. What becomes clear watching these three films is that Russell, as an action star, was really the first to rely more on his wit, his intelligence and the strength of the character.