When it comes to walking like a dead man, Sean Penn’s got nothing on Kurt Russell. At least not on this gloomy March evening as Russell, reprising his role as Snake Plissken and sporting a black eye patch on his stoically sociopathic face, walks slowly through a Commerce, Calif., warehouse.
The space is tonight’s home to Escape From L.A., the follow-up to the 1981 future shocker Escape From New York; and just as the original film introduced Plissken on his way to the prison island of Manhattan, tonight’s scene has him taking another stroll down the halls of injustice. This time, though, Snake is bound for L.A., which by 2013 has been jarred loose from the mainland by — get this, seismology buffs — a 9.6 earthquake and is now a deportation pit for anyone labeled socially undesirable by the right-wing theocracy of the new moral America.
”Abortion doctors, teenage runaways, single mothers, prostitutes, atheists — they’re all sent over,” says director John Carpenter, enjoying a smoke between takes. While Russell’s character more than qualifies (he hasn’t earned the moniker Snake by being a choirboy), his talents are being used to recover a doomsday device stolen by the President’s civilly disobedient daughter and passed on to some invasion-minded radicals led by the Che Guevarian Cuervo Jones (George Corraface). Snake’s mission, again, is literally to do or die.
Nearing the end of a lean-and-mean 70-night shoot, Carpenter is fussing over one of the film’s first scenes, with Russell, suited up in black leather and six-shooters, clanging along a stretch of steel-floored corridor take after take. If he looks slightly ragged a few hours into the process, that only enhances Snake’s desperado image. But then the action stops, and Russell pauses so wardrobe can fit him with a pair of biker gloves. ”It takes five people just to get dressed,” he says, laughing and gently fluffing his hair around the eye-patch strap. Even while shooting Escape From L.A., you can’t escape L.A. completely.
A 15-years-later sequel, unleashed in a hotly competitive summer, needs Russell’s drawing power as much as he needed the original. After years of being dismissed as a fresh-faced Disney boy (The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes), Russell, now 45, obliterated that image with Escape From New York. And though he hasn’t had trouble finding action-movie work (Tombstone, StarGate, Executive Decision), he always planned to revisit the role of the rebel with the patch — and he wasn’t talking about Captain Ron.
The same nostalgic yearning also gnawed at Carpenter and original Escape producer Debra Hill. The director had met Russell when they worked together on the 1979 TV biopic Elvis, and Carpenter fought to cast him as Snake, rather than Tommy Lee Jones, the preferred choice of his bosses at Avco Embassy Pictures. (Carpenter later put Russell in 1982’s The Thing and 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China.) He saw something of a Western antihero in Russell, and Snake Plissken was as close to a traditional gunslinger as he’d ever created. ”No matter what anybody tells you, this is cowboy noir,” says Carpenter, 48. In 1987, Hill and Carpenter commissioned a sequel script by Coleman Luck (The Equalizer) in which L.A. was a lunatic asylum. It ended with the surprise revelation that the Snake Plissken seen in the original was a clone. ”It didn’t do what we wanted it to do,” says Carpenter, ”and I got disheartened. So until Kurt came back and said, ‘Let’s do it,’ we just kind of let it sit.”