By Erin Free

When it comes to badass anti-heroes, few can hold a candle to Snake Plissken. Han Solo might be cooler, Martin Riggs might be tougher (maybe), and Harry Callahan might be more self-assured, but Snake Plissken is a hard-as-nails bad-guy-turned-good-guy like no other. Played with gruff, imaginative authority by Kurt Russell (in the role that would forever free him from his past as a Disney child star) in John Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic Escape From New York (a film so good that Luc Besson plagiarised it – yes, it’s official – for the 2012 thriller, Lockout), Plissken is a bad man in an even worse world.

Ravaged by war and an out-of-control crime rate, America has become such a cesspool that New York has been refitted into a maximum security prison. When a plane carrying The US President crashes into the prison after being hijacked by terrorists, war hero turned bank robber Plissken is sent in to get him. “We’re still at war,” says Lee Van Cleef’s Police Commissioner Bob Hauk, the man sending him in. “We need him alive.” The recalcitrant Plissken’s sneering reply – “I don’t give a fuck about your war…or your president” – instantly sets him up as a classic anti-authoritarian hero. His long hair, eye patch and cool-as-hell wardrobe (wetsuit vest, combat fatigues, boots) set him up as an instant icon. When thrown in amongst the city-prison’s psychopaths and degenerates, Plissken soon proves himself to be tougher and smarter than all of them.

Kurt Russell in Escape From New York
Kurt Russell in Escape From New York

“He’s a guy that I knew at high school who went to ‘Nam and came back and had changed,” John Carpenter has said of the character’s genesis. “He was Snake. Snake is also an archetypal Western character; he’s a bad guy from the Old West, a hired gun. He’s also a part of me that’s distrustful and dislikes authority. He’s also part of Kurt; Kurt’s a tough guy. Snake is a sociopath and doesn’t give a shit about anyone. All he cares about is living for the next sixty seconds. He doesn’t want to hurt you, but don’t screw with him. He’ll get you back.”

Kurt Russell (who would unfortunately play the character again in the horribly ill advised 1996 sequel Escape From LA) is equally fond of Snake Plissken, and worked heavily with Carpenter and co-screenwriter Nick Castle in building the character. “I didn’t play Snake Plissken,” Russell once said. “I created him! One of the things about Escape From New York that appealed to me was that it wasn’t a special effects extravaganza. It’s a quiet, dark world, and it revolved around watching the behaviour of this one guy. He’s a fascinating character. In fact, he’s the most complex character that I’ve ever played.”

And though seemingly a simple action sci-fi flick, the final scene of Escape From New York – Plissken cruelly unspooling a tape containing a message of possible world peace – showcases one of the most unforgettably nihilistic and rebellious characters in the history of cinema.

  • Vam
    13 December 2016 at 4:37 pm

    Han Solo cooler?

    Bloody Martin Riggs?

    Seriously, Snake is the coolest character of all time.

Leave a Reply