Kurt Russell, John Carpenter, and the 1980s action hero

Why Escape From New York, The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China show Kurt Russell and John Carpenter at their best.

Every truly iconic action hero needs the belief and the expertise of at least one talented director. John Wayne would never have become the role model of his time without the long shots of both John Ford and Howard Hawks. Clint Eastwood represented the mean anti-hero in close-up for both Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. And Kurt Russell was never better than when he occupied the slyly subversive medium shots of John Carpenter in the 1980s.

Carpenter’s action films are entertaining cinematic excursions, filled with glee

for what can be accomplished on his budget, and Russell fits them perfectly. He doesn’t look too classy, or expensive. You can’t take him too seriously, and yet he’s still formidable when he gets down to taking control of the situation.

Here’s a look at the three films Russell made with Carpenter in the 1980s, when the role of ‘hero’ was going through big changes. There are other projects that the two of them worked on together, such as the excellent biopic Elvis (1979) and Escape From L.A. (1996), but in these 1980s films there’s a particular magic – a suspension of the normal rules of action movies to make some of the most enjoyable films of the period.

Escape From New York (1981)

The 1980s was a great time for the action hero; Indiana Jones, Conan, Rambo and Mad Max all made their first appearances. Standing alongside them is Snake Plissken, with his eyepatch and monosyllabic approach to life.

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A very bleak theme lies at the heart of Escape From New York. In a dystopian future the President of the US has been forced to eject from Air Force One and ends up inside a high security prison, which happens to take up the entire of Manhattan. An unwilling Plissken is forced to go and find him, which sounds like traditional heroic fare, but it turns out the President might not be such a great role model, and nobody is quite sure what to do with him anyway. Carpenter said he wrote the script as a response to Watergate, and that feeling of distrust for all authority permeates it.

There were anti-heroes before Snake Plissken, of course, but he really ups the stakes in not being a nice guy. He ignores attacks on innocent people and isn’t going to risk himself for anybody. Before this, Russell had mainly played wholesome characters in Disney films such as The Barefoot Executive (1971) and Superdad (1973), and he wanted to move away from that nice-guy image. I think he really succeeded. Plissken is the kind of character who is so much larger than life that he keeps cropping up, as an inspiration in video games

such as Metal Gear Solid, and even in planned remakes. I hope, if this film ever is remade, that they don’t make Snake a bit more palatable. This is a world gone wrong; nobody is meant to even attempt to put it right. Particularly not Plissken.

The Thing (1982)

One of the most effective films for building a sense of dread, The Thing takes a 1950s plot and throws gore and weirdness at it to strong effect. It shows how shock and fear turns so quickly to paranoia, making honest communication impossible.

Kurt Russell plays MacReady, a helicopter pilot living on an Antarctic research station with a small group of co-workers. He keeps himself to himself, as all the men do – this is no team building exercise. After they save a dog from an apparently crazed attack by a member of the Norwegian team nearby, they find evidence of a discovery under the ice. Soon it becomes apparent that the dog is not what it seems to be at all.

A lot of Carpenter’s films have a slightly ‘make-do’ look about them, but The Thing looks expensive, and that gives it, I think, a more serious feel. Russell plays MacReady as an unhappy figure, not given to trusting anyone from the beginning, and that makes for a very tense film throughout. But that’s not to say that there aren’t some moments of humour in it that do a great job of dispelling the tension when its most needed, only to ramp it up again. Carpenter has such control over our emotions here. He chooses to not resolve that tension at the end, and to not give the viewer a hero that they can easily trust

. By the end of the film we still don’t really know if MacReady can be trusted, and that is a very unusual choice.

Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

Here’s a full-on assault on the idea of the all-American hero that strangely makes Russell seem more likeable than ever before. Perhaps it’s the fact that he displays his gift for comedy, and makes use of his great timing, particularly in his exchanges with Kim Cattrall.

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Russell plays Jack Burton, a trucker who becomes embroiled in an age-old fight between good and evil. A cursed Chinese sorcerer needs to marry a girl with green eyes in order to give him a mortal body once more, so he kidnaps a couple of likely candidates, including the fiancé of a friend of Jack’s. It’s the kind of straightforward story you can really get stuck into, but here’s where things get interesting – Jack can do nothing right. Carpenter introduces him, and depicts him throughout, as a kind of John Wayne figure (look at the final shots of the film in particular, which are straight out of The Searchers) but then makes him fall over in every fight, not understand anything that’s happening, and even end up in the big final showdown wearing pink lipstick. It’s a great way to puncture the cult of the unstoppable action hero that was in full swing by the mid 1980s with Commando (1984) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).

But perhaps it also contributes to the reason why Big Trouble in Little China wasn’t a success at the time of release. Did we want borderline incompetence in our heroes back then? Still, it means we can appreciate it all the more now for taking risks and subverting the traditional tropes while never losing its strong sense of fun. It’s a great piece of pure entertainment, even if it was, as Carpenter later said, ahead of its time.

After Big Trouble in Little China, Kurt Russell went on to bigger action budgets with Backdraft (1991), Stargate (1994), and Executive Decision (1996), but I’ve always liked him more with a twinkle of humour in his performance, such as in Overboard (1987) and even Death Proof (2007). Maybe the upcoming Tarantino picture The Hateful Eight will give him a chance to combine his gift for both action and comedy successfully once more.

After all, every action hero needs the belief and expertise of at least one talented director, right?