Intro: We are men, men who enjoy movies. Within the diverse canon of films that comprise our favorites, male characters exist whom we count among our heroes. These are men who often represent the archetypes of manhood, for better or worse. These are the Reel Men and we will be studying these characters in order to determine what lesson of mandom can be gleaned from them.
The Film: Escape from New York (1981)
Who’s The Man: Snake Plissken
In the distant future (past?) of 1997, the United States experiences such a dramatic rise in crime that it becomes necessary to explore drastic measures. The entire island of Manhattan is converted into an enormous prison colony. All of the country’s worst criminals are shipped there to live a lawless existence completely cordoned off from the rest of the world. Everything seems to be working fine until Air Force One crashes within Manhattan’s walls and The President is abducted by the kingpin of New York Prison: The Duke. Now, desperate to retrieve the leader of the free world before he’s murdered, the prison administrators recruit recently-arrived prisoner Snake Plissken, a former Special Forces soldier, to sneak in and recover The President.
What Makes Him a Reel Man?
It’s pretty much a travesty that it took this long for Snake Plissken to be featured in this column. Snake is a monument to all that is man. But now that this great wrong has been righted, the problem now facing me is choosing just one lesson of manhood imparted by this champion of machismo. To simply list his actions within the film is to create a comprehensive guide to advanced manliness. But ultimately, when examining the exploits of one Snake Plissken, the overarching man moral we come away with is what it takes to be a total badass.
Snake Plissken manages to be effortlessly awesome throughout the entire film. From the moment we are introduced to him, captured and being led off to his life sentence, we witness his swagger and his unshakeable defiance. We also can’t help but notice the black patch covering his left eye. Now normally, characters wearing eye patches are relegated to one of three categories: pirate, bond villain, clumsy sword-sharpener. Snake’s patch instantly lets us know that he is an anti-hero whose moral code borders uncomfortably close to that of a villain. It also serves as a warning to all foes that this is a man who fears no pain and who will not be deterred in his quest by the paltry loss of major body part. It also just looks damn cool, doesn’t it? As does his weathered leather jacket and his “I’m not someone to screw with” five o’clock shadow.
Then we learn his name. If you’re going to choose an animalistic nickname, it pays to select one that both frightens your enemies and speaks to your nature. Plissken is a man of few words, he moves quietly through the shadows of what was once New York only speaking when absolutely necessary. But about the time you make the mistake of thinking he’s not a threat, that’s when this coiled serpent strikes quickly and with deadly force. His soft, gravely voice is akin to the hiss of a snake and he bears a crude tattoo of a cobra on his chest. If he had been called Pussycat Plissken, I’m not sure any amount of eye patches, tattoos, or chiseled jaws could have convinced us of his toughness.
Snake is a guy who most assuredly plays by his own rules. He doesn’t care about the plight of The President, a testament to his distaste for authority. His decision to take on the mission is self-serving, bucking even the most basic conventions of the traditional hero. They actually have to insert an explosive device into his body that will kill him if he doesn’t complete the mission within twenty-four hours in order to maintain any sort of control over him. That ferocious individualism is the core of all badasses.
Of course, more than anything else, Snake Plissken earns his badass stripes through his actions once he arrives in the Big (now rotten) Apple. He walks the clearly dangerous streets alone without hesitation, he takes down multiple scumbags at once without breaking a sweat, and even uses a machine gun to create a door where once stood a mere wall. Sure, Bob Vila may take serious issue with the logistics of such a move, but the rest of us applaud his quick-thinking and violent ingenuity. He then manages, despite the hindrance of a wounded leg, to defeat in mortal combat a bearded man who is roughly the size of New York City bus. By the time we get to the end, it’s a cinch that Snake will succeed in his charge. But, true to his badass credo, he orchestrates one final middle finger to the establishment as he switches a landmark recording on nuclear fusion with a tape of swing music.
The Man’s World
Escape from New York marked the first of what would be many cinematic collaborations between Kurt Russell and John Carpenter. In the years to come, they would work together on The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and finally on the sequel Escape from LA. John Carpenter, as his career progressed, became more and more fascinated with the disintegration of the American dream. In Escape from New York, not only one of America’s great cities, but indeed one of the greatest cities in the world is reduced to nothing more than a dumping ground for criminals. Snake Plissken is a mouthpiece for Carpenter’s growing displeasure with American politics which explains Snake’s famous line: “I don’t give a F#*# about your President.”
The Man Behind the Man: Kurt Russell
Kurt Russell is one of cinema’s premier action heroes. This fact is particularly amusing when considering Russell got his start doing family films for Disney as a young man. In fact, Escape from New York marked his first time he dabbled in the genre. But he proved to be so good at kicking ass and taking names that he would end up landing roles in several major action/adventure films in the years that followed. Among these were Tango & Cash, Backdraft, Tombstone, Stargate, and Executive Decision. Russell had the ability to play the roguish tough guy like Plissken who seemed birthed from planet badass as well as the amiable regular Joe with a good ol’ boy personality. Escape from New York remains my favorite of his films; The Thing running a close second.
One Final Toast
Russell is as much an admirer of reel men as he is one himself. For inspiration, Kurt likes to turn to one of the manliest movie genres ever conceived: the western. It has been said that his soft, raspy Snake Plissken voice was inspired by none other than Clint Eastwood in any number of his spaghetti westerns. If you’re going to draw from the well of macho, I can think of few better go-to exemplars than Clint. Interesting side note, Russell based the vocal choice for his Jack Burton character from Big Trouble in Little China on John Wayne.