When it Comes to Cinematic Collaborations, Two Go Overlooked

3/10/2010 Posted by Admin

When it Comes to Cinematic Collaborations, Two Go Overlooked

By our guest blogger, Joel Crabtree

With the recent releases of “Shutter Island” and “Alice in Wonderland,” there has been much talk--both positive and negative--of famous director team-ups. Of course, right now the hot topic is Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as the juggernaut duo of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

These releases have spurred writers, columnists and fans to dig into the past and find the most prominent director-actor collaborators in cinema history. In all the musings, though, it seems as if there's one duo that gets left out, other than Stephen Rea and Neil Jordan.

I'm talking about John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.

Somewhere after John Ford and John Wayne, and well before Scorsese and DiCaprio, there is Russell and Carpenter. The two seem to have fallen between the cracks of director-actor teams. The release of "Elvis" on DVD, though, has brought these two into the spotlight once again. Here's how their five collaborations rank:

5. "Elvis" 1979 — The duos first movie together, and a surprisingly good made-for-TV biopic, "Elvis" was just released on DVD last week (seek it out if you haven't already). The movie's biggest fault is its pacing--it clocks in at 170 minutes--but Russell makes up for that with his Elvis, one of the actor's best roles to date. The performances are the highlight of the movie. Russell owns every inch of the stage, much like The King himself.

Coming straight off his "Halloween" success, Carpenter shows his range as a director. Even though horror and sci-fi is what he's known for, Carpenter can do whatever the hell he wants. "Elvis" is the proof. It's a good introduction to a great series of collaborations.

4. "Big Trouble in Little China" 1986 — Carpenter has created some pretty "out there" movies in his career, but "Big Trouble in Little China" tops them all. Russell is Jack Burton, a conspiracy-theorist big-rig driver who finds ... well ... big trouble in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Big trouble comes in the form of Lo Pan, a 2,000-year-old magician who is after a green-eyed bride so he can become mortal. Being the all-American hero he is, Burton naturally joins in on the rescue effort to save the green-eyed damsel in distress and also recover his stolen big-rig.

Burton is another classic Carpenter character, with all the working-man characteristics that we have come to expect. The special effects may be reminiscent of old "Power Rangers" episodes, but isn't that what makes this movie fun? Between Burton and the hijinks in Chinatown, the movie holds its own.

3. "Escape from L.A." 1996 — Carpenter is known as a master of horror, but how about a master of self-parody? In 1996, realizing that his original vision of 1997 in 1981's "Escape from New York" wasn't going to pan out, Carpenter made a sequel and played up on unsuccessful attempt at fortune-telling.

We pick up in 2013, where Los Angeles has been transformed into a prison similar to New York. Sixteen years after the original Russell's Snake Plissken hasn't changed a bit--literally. Plissken still has the same clothes he had on in "Escape from New York."

Plissken is a dinosaur in the world of 2013, and he's unwilling to change. He likes smoking, he likes red meat, and he doesn't care what the world thinks of it. He's still the same anti-hero we met in 1981. In the movie, Plissken plays basketball to save his life, he surfs through L.A. with Peter Fonda, and it's all so ridiculous and perfect. "L.A." remains one of Carpenter's most underrated movies.

At the end of it, Snake Plissken is still Snake Plissken. And that's all he'll ever be.

2. "The Thing" 1982 — Carpenter is at his scariest when he plays with the audiences sense of space, locking them into small areas with their worst nightmare. It's fitting, then, that "The Thing" ranks as one of his most terrifying pieces of work to date.

Carpenter places our heroes, a group of scientists led by Russell's grizzled R.J. MacReady, in an isolated Antarctica research base where a shape-shifting has taken residence. The alien, of course, can flawlessly assume the form of any individual scientist, creating the most heightened sense of paranoia and tension in any Carpenter film.

"The Thing" is easily one of the scariest movies in Carpenter's filmography, and even of all time. It marks the second instant-classic the duo worked on.

1. "Escape from New York" 1981 — The first instant-classic Carpenter and Russell ever made--it's far and away the best picture the two ever worked on. The movie introduces Snake Plissken, who remains Kurt Russell's most memorable character to date, competing only with the actor's turn in "Death Proof." The film also stars Donald Pleasance, another frequent Carpenter collaborator.

The 1981 movie takes place in 1997, where instead of the boy band craze and "Batman & Robin," the world faces a massive increase in crime rates (pick your poison). Manhattan has been turned into a gloomy, post-apocalyptic prison, where Plissken, a former war hero and convict, is sent to retrieve the president, whose plane crashed on the island.

In Plissken, Carpenter and Russell create the original anti-hero. He sets the standard, and has yet to be topped. Rumors, of course, are that there is a remake (or do they prefer the term "reboot" these days?) in the works. I beg you, Hollywood, please don't.

The bottom line is John Carpenter likes a good grizzled hero--or anti-hero. That's what he does best. It's almost as though he lifts characters out of westerns--Plissken is a prime example of this--and drops them in the middle of a sci-fi or horror universe. Nobody can play one of Carpenter's lead roles like Russell does. Together, they make a great team.

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  1. Anthony Crabtree said...

    What about the LaBute/Eckhart combo? I love the Carpenter/Russell connection just as much as the next guy (and I understand this article goes along with your recent Carpenter/Russell pieces), but the work that Neil LaBute and Aaron Eckhart have done together manages to slip under the radar when director/actor duos are discussed. Still, a well written article about two men in the film industry who deserve the recognition. Very well done.

  2. Admin said...

    You should write that piece for us, Tony.