For Russell, no escape from his first action role
By Tom Green
Hey, Snake, I thought you were dead.
If youre up to speed on cult film trivia, youll recognize "I thought you were dead" as dialogue from 1981s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, the John Carpenter film that launched Kurt Russell as an action hero playing Snake Plissken, a guy with a black patch on one eye who will do whatever it takes to make it through the day.
Fifteen years later, Carpenter, Russell and producer Debra Hill have re-teamed for ESCAPE FROM L.A., in which a 9.6 earthquake has detached the City of Angels from the mainland while submerging the San Fernando Valley.
As if . . .
So why did a sequel take so long?
"Only now did we have the chance," says Carpenter, noting that Russell is coming off of three action hits in TOMBSTONE, STARGATE and EXECUTIVE DECISION. "Plus," he says, "marketing research showed people knew the first film and wanted a sequel."
Russell says that with its notoriety for recent fires, floods, mudslides, riots and earthquakes, Los Angeles had gained cachet as a perfect place to re-create "the Escape world." And a major studio, Paramount, was willing to risk $40 million. (The first film cost $7 million and grossed about $40 million.)
Adds Russell, 44: "I said, 'Guys, age-wise Im still able to perform the character like he was meant to be played and like he looked in the first one. If were going to do this one, we better do it now.'"
"John Carpenter and I have gotten older," Hill says, "and Kurt Russell hasnt aged at all."
In a pile of clothes in a closet at home, Russell found the original costume he wore in NEW YORK. The former child actor says it is the only costume he ever kept, thinking he might like to do the character again. It still fit.
He wears it in a few scenes but changes into a militaristic, high-tech, all-black outfit that has a "stealth" feel for most of the movie, which is set in 2013.
In the film, now in post-production and due for an August release, L.A. has become an island of miscreants, and Plissken is forced to go there to find a lethal secret weapon. Injected with a virus that will kill him in 10 hours, he must complete his mission and escape to get the antidote.
His chief nemesis is a gangster named Cuervo Jones (George Corraface). Others in the cast include Stacy Keach as a U.S. Police Force commander, Peter Fonda as a gun-toting surfer dude, Steve Buscemi as a con man, Pam Grier as a gorgeous transvestite, Valeria Golino as an Italian temptress and Cliff Robertson as the U.S. president.
Carpenter, Hill and Russell wrote the screenplay for the sequel, but except for themselves, the only returnees from the original film are sound crew members Joe Brennan and Tommy Causey.
Original cast stars Donald Pleasance and Lee Van Cleef are dead. And most of the films other characters were killed by the last reel, although Hill says that Isaac Hayes, who played the Duke of New York, called frequently to ask for a part. "'Im alive!' hed say. Id say, No, the Duke of New York is not alive. Hed say, Im his twin brother?" Hayes wasnt cast.
The character of Snake is "an alter ego of mine -- a young alter ego," Carpenter says. Audiences loved the character because hes uncorruptible and "truly cares only about himself. He lives for the next 60 seconds and thats it. . . But he always comes through."
Says Russell: "On the surface he looks completely one-dimensional, but I felt he was the most complex character Ive ever played. . . .Its impossible to tell what hes thinking or why."
The actor wasnt thrilled to get back into his eye patch -- what it does to perception is "kind of a headache." In terms of physical requirements, Russell still says BACKDRAFT was tougher. But ESCAPE FROM L.A. comes close.
"The first thing that happens to Snake when he hits Los Angeles is its raining, and he gets caught in a mudslide. So I ride a mudslide down."
Actually a mudslide is the least of the ways L.A. gets annihilated in this movie. Besides becoming an island in the earthquake, which seismic experts say isnt possible ("The minute any seismologist can predict an earthquake and tell us when its going to happen is the minute I will believe what they say," Carpenter says), a tsunami sweeps down Wilshire Boulevard.
Most of the icons of Los Angeles are severely damaged -- the Hollywood sign, the Chinese Theater, the Capitol Records building. The Queen Mary, docked in Long Beach when the earthquake hits in 1999, winds up in downtown L.A. A submarine runs into the King Kong attraction at the Universal Studios.
Production designer Lawrence G. Paull, whose previous films include the apocalyptic BLADERUNNER, says "The problem became, where do you film it in L.A.? L.A. is still L.A."
At an old landfill in Carson, a demolished Sunset Boulevard, a decimated section of freeway with hundreds of damaged cars and a destroyed Beverly Hills Hotel were built.
Carpenter is pleased with the result but not sure ESCAPE will become a franchise. "Theres only one other place to go. We have to escape from Earth. But I think that might end it."
"It took us 15 years to figure this one out," Russell says. "Maybe in 15 years well figure another one out."