THE THREE FACES OF KURT: THE CARPENTER/RUSSELL BIG SCREEN COLLABORATIONS!
Photo: Empire Magazine
THE START OF FILM HISTORY
If there’s one thing you can definitely say about legendary director John Carpenter, it’s that he creates some great and iconic characters to inhabit his great movies. And if there’s one actor that fits Carpenter’s characters like a glove, it’s Kurt Russell. The two would collaborate five times together, so far, starting with the TV movie Elvis in 1979, with Russell playing the King Of Rock And Roll, whom the actor had actually worked with on It Happened At The World’s Fair in 1963. Of course, Elvis was not a character created by Carpenter, but it would be the start of a five picture journey with Russell playing three of Carpenter’s most iconic creations and one true life legend. The King aside, lets take a look at three of John Carpenter’s most memorable characters as they were brought to life by Kurt Russell, already a veteran actor from the age of 10.
Russell as The King…
…and Russell with the King in 1963’s It Happened At The World’s Fair
SNAKE PLISSKEN: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)
One of cinema’s most iconic and underused character’s is ex-soldier and anti-hero Snake Plissken, who first appeared in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York in 1981. Carpenter had to fight with Avco Embassy pictures over the casting of Russell as the studio preferred legendary film tough guy Charles Bronson, an established action star, as apposed to the former Disney child actor, Russell. But Carpenter stood his ground and Russell stepped into the role of the one-eyed, grizzled outlaw who get’s arrested on the eve of a terrorist attack on Air Force One, which leaves The President (Donald Pleasence) stranded inside NYC…which in this near future, is a walled maximum security prison. As portrayed by Kurt Russell, Snake Plissken is one part Clint Eastwood’s ‘man with no name’ and one part honey badger. Plissken doesn’t care about the rest of the world or The President, he sees his mission into the hellhole of NYC as a way out of spending the rest of his life there. Who cares if the world is on the brink of all out war, all he wants is that presidential pardon in his hands and he really doesn’t care about the rest…or does he? Despite his outward apathy, Plissken does show some remorse over those who lose their lives helping him rescue The President and even more important, the tape recording he has with him. Although, let’s be honest, it was Snake’s little white lie about getting those who help him out of NYC, too that insured their cooperation in the first place, but when you have two microscopic explosive devices in your neck ready to explode when your 24 hours is up, you make some selfish choices. Russell’s Snake is cool as ice, but not quite cold which is why we like him so much. He’s anti-authority, he walks to the beat of his own drum and if need be, he’s got plenty of fighting and weapons skills to throw down if he has to, but he still seems to have a soft spot for the innocents caught in the way of the mechanizations of those in charge. He’s an outlaw, but one that only seems to like sticking it to ‘The Man’ every chance he gets. A fallen war hero with an Eastwood growl who’s turned his back on the government he fought for because of how expendable they see the rest of us.
We all wish we were as cool as Snake and flip the establishment the bird with our very existence like he does. And Escape ends with the ultimate FU as he destroys the very prize he was sent in for and walks away with a smoke and without a care as he may just have sent the world back to war. Sadly, Snake would appear only once more on screen in the disappointing Escape From L.A. which was, for some reason, more of a remake and played for laughs. Russell was still cool as Snake, but the film around him was one of Carpenter’s lesser efforts. Still, Snake is a classic movie icon and one of the greatest anti-heros of all time and despite remake talk, I can’t see anyone but Russell in the role.
R.J. MACREADY: THE THING (1982)
Carpenter and Russell would work together again the very next year on Carpenter’s remake of The Thing From Another World simply titled The Thing. Carpenter’s version abandon’s Howard Hawks’ walking vegetable to return to the original source material of John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? about a shapeshifting alien creature that invades an Antarctic research station and is capable of absorbing and imitating anyone and everyone it comes in contact with. Russell is cast as helicopter pilot R. J. MacReady, who reluctantly takes charge of the situation when suspicion and paranoia causes the chain of command to quickly collapse. Like most of the Outpost 31 members, MacReady seems to be a misfit and social outcast who, for reasons never fully explained, seems to prefer being at the far reaches of the planet and spending most of his day with a bottle of scotch when he is not in the air. But Mac seems more a wounded soul than angry like Plissken. And once the alien threat becomes known, he realizes the importance of stopping it before it gets back to the world he himself seems to be trying to avoid. He also realizes that he is best fit to take control and does so, however reluctantly. Mac would rather be left alone, but rises to the occasion when thrust into this fantastic and unbelievable situation. Unlike Plissken, MacReady is willing to give up his own life to save those he seems to want to distance himself from. In a way he is just as cool as Snake, but for different reasons. Snake is an authority hating, self serving, outlaw. While Mac is an anti-social, yet ultimately selfless, outcast who is willing to do what’s needed to stop “The Thing” from ever leaving the cold wasteland it had the unfortunate luck of crashing it’s ship into. Certain items of clothing lead one to believe Mac, like Snake, might be ex-military, but that too is never touched upon. Mac is a bit more of an enigma than Snake, but no less heroic and for far more noble reasons.
Russell is again top notch here as he perfectly creates a man who’s pain and reluctance are shadowed in his eyes, as he fights something imagined only in nightmares, in a suicidal effort to save the world. Where Snake is an anti-hero, MacReady is a true hero, and depending on how you view the film’s ambiguous ending, maybe one that has paid the ultimate price and gladly, if it means the rest of us are safe in our beds. Sadly The Thing was a box office and critical disappointment when it first opened, but fortunately, it is now recognized as the great film classic that it is. Arguably John Carpenter’s best movie.
JACK BURTON: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1985)
Three years after The Thing Carpenter and Russell teamed up again for the deliriously fun Big Trouble In Little China, a movie that was criminally under-appreciated when it first came out, but like a lot of Carpenter’s other works, is now recognized and loved as a cult classic… and rightfully so! Russell, this time, plays truck driver and legend in his own mind, Jack Burton. Unlike Snake and Mac, Jack is a lovable jerk who fancies himself far more the hero than he actually is, due to his massive ego. He’s obnoxious and overbearing at times, but there is something about his unapologetic bravado that makes him incredibly endearing. And Russell’s deft comic performance is a large part of why. Jack is obviously played for laughs and Russell is very funny and his timing is perfect as this lovable lug dives into numerous situations way over his head just to get the money owed him in a bet, recapture his stolen truck and impress and then save a girl who he claims he doesn’t even like, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall). Russell’s mullet wearing Jack faces, Chinese gang members, mystically powered martial artists and creatures right out of Chinese folklore all with the swagger of John Wayne and the over confidence of a high school jock trying to impress the hot cheerleader. And he is one of Carpenter’s most all-time quotable characters as he quips his way from one fantastic situation to the next, barely messing up his hair, but somehow managing to mess up our villain Lo Pan’s (James Hong) plans.
Big Trouble In Little China is a blast as Carpenter seems to pay tribute to some of the early Chinese fantasies like Tsui Hark’s Zu ,The Warriors of Magic Mountain. If America had caught on to the new wave Hong Kong cinema that started in the early 80s a few years sooner, the film probably would have been a big hit. Once again Carpenter was ahead of his time and Kurt Russell was along with him for the highly entertaining ride, delivering every line of dialog with scene-chewing relish. Personally, I think Jack Burton was another character that needed a film series or at least a sequel much like Plissken. It was great to see Kurt Russell able to have such a good time with this character after his last two characters played for the master Carpenter were a study in intensity, which Russell pulled off in his usual classic style. This is what happens when a great director and a great actor get together…movie magic!
As a huge fan of both Carpenter and Russell, my fanboy dream would be to see them work that magic together one more time before they retire. That would be awesome! But for now, we have some great movies to watch and some sidesplitting-ly wonderful commentary on the DVDs and Blu-Rays which illustrate just how well these two cinema legends get along and why their cinematic collaborations are such classics!