Why Hollywood Can't Replace Snake Plissken
Here's the problem with the Escape From New York Remake.
"They got people working on trying to put together Escape From New York [remake], and they don’t know where they’re going with it. It’s been done! Guess what, guys, it’s been done. And there’s nothing wrong with it. But what you need now is what John [Carpenter] told them then: you need a good young guy who gets the character.” -Kurt Russell
When I was a kid, I remember going to the local video rental store every Friday and looking for a VHS to binge-watch over the weekend. Even back then, I was an avid horror fan, so I often made a beeline right for that section. However, one afternoon I remember stopping after a different tape caught my eye. The cover featured a badass man in a black leather jacket with long hair and an eye patch.
The movie in question was Escape from L.A. and I quickly saw that it had both John Carpenter and Kurt Russell named on the front cover. These were two creators who I knew well from one of my favorite horror films of all time, The Thing. In my mind, the duo might as well have been horror movie royalty to me. Needless to say, I never made it to the horror section that day. Instead of my usual horrorfest, that weekend became my first introduction to the character of Snake Plissken, who remains one of my favorite movie characters of all time even to this day.
As I later learned, Escape from L.A. is actually the sequel to an earlier film. S.D. Bob "Snake" Plissken is first introduced in 1981's Escape From New York. Snake is a former United States special forces operative and war hero turned criminal and bank robber. He is the definition of cool, a cynical gunslinger doing what he feels he must to survive against a corrupt government he feels has failed him. He is a man of few words with a no-bullshit attitude, telling things like they are, and is quick to showcase his gallows humor.
Snake holds nothing sacred, doesn't believe in abstract concepts like patriotism, and yet lives by his own personal code of honor. Best of all, he has the skills to back up his persona and can handle himself in high-stress situations. Snake uses not only his combat skills, but also his intelligence and wit to overcome his foes even in the face of impossible situations. He wears an eyepatch and leather jacket with camouflage pants and has a dangerous, unkempt look about him, only further adding to his intimidating persona.
At the start of Escape From New York, Snake has finally been captured by the United States Police Force and is being sent to Manhattan Island to serve a life sentence. The entire island had been turned into a maximum security prison years earlier, surrounded by an impenetrable wall constantly patrolled by armed guards to prevent escape. Prisoners who are exiled to the prison are done so for good and left to fend for themselves, as there are no guards and no rules on the inside. Fate quickly intervenes, however, on Snake's behalf when Air Force One is shot down over the island just prior to his arrival.
The President, as well as a vital tape containing cold fusion technical data, are taken hostage by the de-facto big bad guy known as The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes). Snake is offered a full pardon if he goes in and brings back both the POTUS and the tape, but to ensure his cooperation, bombs are implanted in his neck. He then flies into New York under cover of darkness with only 22-hours to do or die. "When I get back, I'm going to kill you" are Snake's final words to his captors before being sent off to do their dirty work once again.
After a long journey and with some help from friends old and new, Snake manages to make it out with the President. The Duke of New York is killed and the day is saved, with Snake getting his pardon and his bombs neutralized. However, after confronting the President about the deaths of his fallen comrades, Snake realizes what he already knew: the government is corrupt and uncaring, and had once again used him up and spat him out. They didn't care about the men and women who had died for them, seeing them as nothing more than a means to an end.
Snake gets the final laugh, however, when he ensures the U.S. government's humiliation by switching out the data tape with a decoy earlier in the film. Thus, when the President goes to play the information meant to assert their world dominance, instead the world is treated to some jazz music. The film ends with Snake walking away into the darkness, destroying the real tape not in an act of revenge, but one of true justice. Although we won't get into the sequel, Escape from L.A. in this article, just know it continues Snake's story in a similar manner and further explores the character's psyche, attitude, and sense of morality. Spoiler Alert: he's still a complete badass.
Escape From New York is a cult classic film, often considered one of the best action/sci-fi/dystopian movies ever made. Its overall dark tone and post-apocalyptic world as created by John Carpenter really resonated with movie fans and are part of what makes its exact genre hard to nail down. It even has some genuine moments of horror, such as the attack by the subterranean and cannibalistic gang known as The Crazies. Back in 2007, it was announced that Escape From New York would be remade for a new generation. It has been in development hell pretty much ever since then. The latest news on the project is from around 2015 that Luther writer Neil Cross was set to write the latest screenplay. When the remake was first announced, Gerard Butler was named as the new Snake Plissken, much to the chagrin of the fans. Even Russell himself did not approve of the casting choice during an interview with Empire.
"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! I thought Gerard Butler was great in 300."
This is the main issue with any remake of a popular franchise, but especially cult classics. Hollywood can't just replace Kurt Russell without there being serious fan backlash, especially when no one really asked for a remake of such an iconic film in the first place. We often joke about how the movie industry has run out of good ideas and is "scraping the bottom of the barrel." They want to take popular ideas and movies from the past that were successful and try to update them for a modern audience. This almost never works, though, because these movies are a product of their time and circumstances.
Escape From New York works because it is an oddball film from 1981. It had a budget of only $6 million and was a labor of love for those involved. Carpenter, Russell, and the others just wanted to make a great film whereas today the project is being pursued because of greed. Fans don't want a remake; they would much rather just see Kurt Russell return again much older and more bitter. This is because Snake Plissken is up there with characters such as Indiana Jones or Ellen Ripley. The actors that portrayed them are them.
Sadly, Russell has stated that he feels he is too old to don the eyepatch again and would rather see a younger actor take on the role if they're going to try another Escape film. So what options do filmmakers have? They can try to recast Snake, for one. There are a small handful of actors who could potentially do a pretty good job. Jon Bernthal, best known for playing Shane on The Walking Dead and most recently as Frank Castle on Netflix's The Punisher, could actually be a good choice. He has a penchant for playing tough guy characters and I think he could pull off the look quite well.
A friend of mine recently suggested Jared Leto might be a good fit, although I don't think he can do the "man of few words" act well. My second choice would have to be Tom Hardy, especially after seeing his performance as Mad Max in Fury Road. He is a very versatile actor and has the chops to do justice to the role. However, even if Hollywood found an actor that did an amazing job, it is nearly impossible to escape the inevitable comparison to the original portrayal by Kurt Russell. Fans will always say "Yeah, he was good, but he was no Kurt." Can filmmakers escape this comparison trap? Maybe, but it will be tricky.
The solution I propose is to remove any comparisons to Russell's original performance altogether by doing a gender swap. Now, I know what you are thinking, gender swaps are usually a bad idea. However, let's look at the one time where it worked as intended, in the remake of Evil Dead in 2013. That movie had the same problem as the potential Escape From New York remake in that the character of Ash Williams, portrayed by the charismatic Bruce Campbell, simply could not be replaced. So they didn't, or at least they technically danced around the issue by use of a gender swap.
Rather than casting a new actor as "Ash Williams," they cast Jane Levy as "Mia Allen," who was essentially a combination of Ash and his sister Cheryl from the original Evil Dead, exhibiting many of their characteristics and acting as a stand-in for Ash. This decision bypassed a lot of the expected fan complaints and resulted in the remake actually being both well-received and successful at the box office. By the end of the movie, everyone knew that this character was our new Ash Williams and most were okay with that. I feel that this example should be used by the folks behind the Escape From New York remake.
If you're sold on this gender swap, the question now becomes, who is on the shortlist for portraying a badass female version of Snake Plissken? There are two actresses that come to mind. The first is Michelle Rodriguez, who has made her entire acting career out of playing tough women in numerous films such as Resident Evil, SWAT, and The Fast and the Furious franchise. In fact, I would dare to say she is one of the most recognizable action film stars in the industry today, and that's regardless of her gender. Not to mention, we've seen her wear an eyepatch in the Machete films before and she already reminded me of what a female Snake might look like.
The second less obvious but equally great choice is Emily Blunt. I've always been a fan of her acting but was especially sold on the idea of her taking over in Escape From New York after watching her role as Rita "Full Metal Bitch" Vrataski in 2014's Edge of Tomorrow alongside Tom Cruise. In that film, she portrayed a combat-hardened soldier who was both very reserved and somewhat cold and calculating to others, both characteristics very much in-line with Snake Plissken. Looper is also another example of her ability to play strong female leads where she doesn't shy away from violence.
Even if filmmakers could successfully pull off this recasting, Russell thinks the movie will fail for one simple reason: John Carpenter is not involved. The actor, perhaps graciously, thinks finding a new Snake is a possibility. However, he is adamant that without the visionary mind behind the film's creation, it is doomed to fail from the start. “The problem is not Snake, you can find a good Snake," Russell stated. "You gotta get John Carpenter. Escape From New York is just weird because of the way he sees the world, man. He sees it slightly off. It’s his world, it’s a night world. This is his thing.”
I couldn't agree more with this sentiment. Look at the handful of times his movies have been remade thus far without his involvement. Assault on Precinct 13 (2005) was mediocre at best while Rob Zombie's Halloween remakes fell flat after his first attempt. We will just pretend like The Fog (2005) was never made in the first place. The reason these films all failed is that they lacked the creative vision and passion brought along by Carpenter, so even if we got a new Snake Plissken that fans could agree on, the final film would still turn out to be nothing more than a hollow shell. Without the dynamic duo of Carpenter and Russell, I doubt we will ever see this remake "escape" into the real world. Hollywood can't and never will replace Snake Plissken in the hearts and minds of the fans.
Do you think a remake of Escape From New York is possible? If so, who would you like to see recast as Snake Plissken? Let us know in the comments below and thanks for taking the time to read this article.