Before we get to Escape from New York, a brief but vital historical overview of Action Movie Men, and the miles of machismo left in their beefy, beefy wake. Across decades, two primary categories have emerged in which most* action icons comfortably fit: “Man-Mountains” and “Bumbling Badasses.”
The Man-Mountains are probably what you picture when you hear “action star,” and by that I mean you picture Arnold Schwarzenegger between the years of 1982 and 1994, or possibly Sylvester Stallone around the time he gained enough mass to obtain his own gravitational pull in Rambo III; these one-man-armies who strap a truly un-carriable amount of automatic weapons across their brick-wall backs and destroy entire cities singlehandedly; the ones who owe an incredible amount of debt, if less in size than in attitude, to the charismatic emotional detachment of Western stars like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson—who were often trying to do Toshiro Mifune, a man floating alone beyond categorization. Despite lugging around an inconceivable amount of muscle, Man-Mountains don’t automatically come with an obvious sense of sex appeal, because they are, by design, a little left of actual humans. (You’ll find a recent glaring exception in The Mummy-era Brendan Fraser.) You see their thread today most tightly woven around the works of billion-dollar earner Dwayne Johnson, the middle-aged ass-kickery of Liam Neeson, and 85% of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (including the people who did not enter the MCU a particularly large person).
On the other side, the Bumbling Badasses, with their roots stretching all the way back to Buster Keaton and his silent daredevil antics, using physical comedy to craft some of the most influential stunts of all time. Leaner, lighter, and constantly getting the absolute shit beaten out of them, you feel this category, of course, in the constantly-improvised antics of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, saying “I’m making this up as I go” before dismantling a truck full of Nazis; you see it in the weaponized whirlwind flailing of Jackie Chan‘s untouchable career, turning falling down into an art form; you obviously see it in the Arnie & Sly of the category, Bruce Willis‘ bleeding-foot cowboy John McClane; you absolutely see it in the unexpected rise of Keanu Reeves, action star, whose characters in films like Speed and Point Break don’t feel as much clumsy as they do boyish. You worry for these beautiful, soft killers. Today, the Bumbling Badass torch is, oddly, primarily carried by the old guard; Reeves reinvented it with weary efficiency in the John Wick franchise, while Tom Cruise—who is in this category, no matter how hard his energy rejects it—continuously tries to die for real on Mission: Impossible movies.
If you’re still with me, here’s the thing about Escape from New York: As the film turns 40, its lead character Snake Plissken, created in tandem by star Kurt Russell with director John Carpenter and his co-writer Nick Castle, remains one of the Action Icons. Much of Snake’s iconography—the eye-patch, the stubble, the cobra tattoo—has become shorthand for the genre. And with the gift of hindsight, the entirety of action filmmaking’s past spread out behind us, it’s easier and easier to see why Snake endures. Snake Plissken, more so than any of his peers, is a Bumbling Badass trying desperately to present himself—to reinvent himself—as a Man-Mountain, and the result is one of the most endearing concoctions in action movie history.
Carpenter’s film arrived at a turning point. Science-fiction had reached new heights as Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back landed in 1980, while the action genre was right on the precipice of deciding what it would look like for the next, oh, two decades or so. In 1981, we’re still three years away from The Terminator turning Schwarzenegger into a mega-star and seven years removed from Die Hard flipping that paradigm on its head. In that awkward mid-point, Carpenter plunks down Escape from New York, a deeply bleak dystopian film where the sci-fi runs pitch-black and the bloody action is led by a man who just spent a decade as Disney’s biggest star. For the character of Snake Plissken, World War III hero turned criminal mercenary sent into the lawless near-future prison of New York City to rescue the president (Donald Pleasance), rumors and reports indicate that financial backers AVCO Embassy Pictures were more interested in Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones. Though I mourn for the alternate timeline where Tommy Lee Jones has a snake tattooed on his stomach, Carpenter’s decision to stick with Kurt Russell proved vital. “They said, ‘Well, he’s just this Disney kid,’ Carpenter remembered in 2016. “I said, ‘No, no, no. He can play this. He can play anything. Believe me, he can play anything.'”
The idea of clean-cut The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes star Kurt Russell dirtying up his image is essential to the character, because the juxtaposition of image and reputation is Snake Plissken in a nutshell. Russell isn’t particularly tall, and Carpenter lets Plissken be not particularly tall; there’s a moment early in Escape from New York when the doctor who injects two explosives into Snake’s neck, this dweeby man in a white lab coat, stands a good few inches taller than Snake, framing that feels inconceivable in a post-Vin Diesel/The Rock staredown world. Russell worked himself into fantastic shape, but it’s a swimmer’s body, lean and mean in a way where the guy also cleaarly still downs pints. His hair is, not to mince words, absolutely goddamn gorgeous. Snake’s voice, never raised above a smoker’s growl, is such an obvious Clint Eastwood affectation that it borders on parody; it feels, unavoidably, like a Disney actor doing his best tough-guy impression, but that works for a character who is clearly striving to maintain an aura of “I don’t give a shit” in every situation. Snake Plissken is a man who adorned himself in the trappings of a badass until it became true. That iconic line, “call me Snake,” is just a little funnier—and a little sadder!—when you realize Snake’s real name is “Bob.”
But then there’s the wonderful running bit across both Escape from New York—and its belated and tragically inferior sequel, Escape from L.A.—where every single person who interacts with Snake Plissken knows who he is. People spot the guy through a telescope 50 feet away and say, “Oh shit, that’s Snake Plissken.” He’s a walking reputation, a legend in the flesh. Snake is a normal-looking guy molded by countless death-defying experiences and the cynicism of still being alive is baked into his personality. (A lot of that also comes from Carpenter, who wrote the film in an aggressive “fuck the world” mindset after the Watergate scandal.) That’s what makes the character so unique, and why it might not have worked with someone more objectively badass than 1981 Kurt Russell: You look at Snake Plissken, his belly tattoo, his perfectly conditioned mane, his Dystopian Under Armour Chic outfit, and you think “this guy looks like he’s trying very hard.” But you somehow, at the exact same time, don’t question for a second that he could pummel you and 15 of your friends without trying very hard. He wears his infamy like a shroud. Escape from L.A. turns the idea into a bit of a joke—more than one person hits Snake with “I thought you’d be taller”—but it doesn’t quite work, and the reason the whole movie doesn’t quite work, is because between 1981 and 1997 the idea of Snake Plissken had become too Cool, Actually. Kurt Russell had become too Cool, Actually. The Snake Plissken of Escape from L.A. plays too much like the more straightforward characters who came after him.
I think a lot about the answer Russell gave in 2013 to the news an Escape from New York reboot might be in the works.
“There are two guys who really do know Snake Plissken and the Escape world. Number one, John [Carpenter]. Number two, me. When it comes to Snake, I can tell you one thing… he’s American. It’s really important that he’s American. There’s a reason why that great fight in the arena [in Escape From New York] is with a baseball bat. That’s American, OK? He knows what he’s doing with that bat in his hand!”
Now, an actor in his 60s yelling that a character has to be American is, on its face, not great. But there’s a core of something true there, whether Russell meant it or not, about how that chip on Snake’s shoulder—born from the chip on Russell’s shoulder in 1981—is a uniquely American ideal. What’s more American than using a Clint Eastwood voice, sketchy tattoos, stubble, and a pack of cigarettes to signify “toughness”? Or needing to project that standard image of toughness at all, needing to reinvent yourself as someone harder than nails and quick with a gun? There’s a reason Snake flies from Ellis Island into New York City; his is an American story of becoming more than. He fought in the country’s wars and crafted a personality from the stories his scars tell. The fact he also happens to hate America, and would knock your damn lights out for calling him a quintessentially American figure, is a feature, not a bug. Because “Bob Plissken” is a contradiction to his core, which is why he tattooed a dang Snake over it.
[*I say “most” because the joy of the action genre is in its fluidity, which means some of its most iconic figures are unquantifiable. John Woo created an entire subgenre with characters, often played by Chow Yun-fat, who are the coolest motherf*ckers alive but also have so, so many feelings. Bruce Lee became a near-mythic figure because of the way he seemed hard as oak but moved like swift water. In fact, there’s an entire separate piece to be written about the way easy categorization of action stars primarily applies specifically to white, American action stars. And then there’s another thousand words for another day that could be devoted to the way that categorization has applied to women in the action genre, especially in the way iconic figures like Sigourney Weaver‘s Ellen Ripley and Linda Hamilton‘s Sarah Connor got harder and harder as their stories—and Hollywood—progressed. Charlize Theron, completely unquantifiable, has arguably emerged as the preeminent action icon of this generation, and that should just be noted.]
Who’s ready to return to the dark?
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