In a special feature running all this week, Alex Williams counts down his Essential Actor / Director Partnerships…
Kurt Russell and John Carpenter
Escape from New York (1981)
The Thing (1982)
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Escape from L.A. (1996)
Unlike the previous entry, there are no crazy stories of John Carpenter ever threatening to shoot Kurt Russell in the head. What there is, however, is a body of films featuring not only acknowledged masterpieces but also some of the most entertaining action/horror fare put on film.
After wowing audiences with his portrayal of The King in 1979’s TV movie Elvis, Escape from New York firmly set Russell as Carpenter’s de facto leading man. With a taciturn and dangerous air, Russell’s Snake Plissken established the actor as a talent capable of carrying a tense action picture with minimal dialogue and a smart, roguish persona.
However, 1982 would mark the point at which their partnership paid its greatest dividend. Carpenter cast Russell as helicopter pilot R.J ‘Mac’ MacReady and set him amidst a top notch cast (Keith David, Wilford Brimley and Donald Moffat among others) stranded in the blinding whiteness of the arctic tundra.
Fuelled with rampant paranoia, The Thing not only features action and horror set pieces that today stand the test of time but also explores the fruitful dynamic when the isolated men begin to lose trust in one another and start doubting each other’s very humanity.
The film centres around the staff and crew at a research station in the Antarctic and their and eventual contact with a shape-shifting alien life-form out to replicate and, in the process, kill them all. Russell’s initially laconic Mac rises to the challenges of leadership and survival in a performance of grim determination and an ambiguous end point.
Carpenter directs with a beautifully framed, static style when showing the endless white all around the camp, which serves to illustrate the double sided nature of the protagonist’s predicament; if anyone does come to save them then the world will be doomed, if no one comes to save them then they are dead anyway. Carpenter recognises that this is essentially the end of the world for those in the camp and films it as such.
When the horror of their situation dawns on Mac and his cohorts, Carpenter ramps up the tension by placing every character under suspicion in escalating scenes of conflict and violence between the various men as they begin to realise their situation and it’s potential consequences.
Culminating in an orgy of destruction and fire, in which the remaining men decided to destroy the camp to deprive the creature of any hiding place, the film ends with only Mac and Childs (Keith David) left alive. The two talk in ambiguous terms, feeling each other out for signs of humanity. Both are exhausted and destined to freeze once the fires all around die down, and with the last lines of the film, we are left to imagine what is what and who is who;
Childs: What do we do now?
MacReady: Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens…
Four years after The Thing, Carpenter returned with Russell for Big Trouble in Little China, an action/fantasy romp with Kim Cattrall, James Hong and Dennis Dun. The film was received poorly upon release but has grown to have a strong cult following and garner respect for its verve, sense of adventure and the memorable performance of James Hong as ancient sorcerer Lo Pan.
Escape from L.A. hit theatres in ’96 to tepid reviews and a 50% loss at the box office. Russell was this time joined by Steve Buscemi, Pam Grier and Stacy Keach along with a memorable cameo from Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell. Another film that has gathered in cult status, Escape from L.A. is decent sequel that re-spins a few too many ideas from the superior first installment, but is nonetheless an enjoyable further adventure for Plissken fans, which also saw Russell serving as a co-writer.
Essential Actor / Director Partnerships: Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog
Essential Actor / Director Partnerships: Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson
Essential Actor / Director Partnerships: Steve Martin and Carl Reiner
Essential Actor / Director Partnerships: Molly Ringwald and John Hughes