John Carpenter has a black belt in Action Movies!
John Carpenter is known as the maestro of the horror film as the director of two of the genre’s greatest movies in Halloween and The Thing as well as the yet to be acknowledged In The Mouth Of Madness. But this graduate of the USC Film School has also morphed across multiple genres in his filmmaking career such as science fiction, westerns, comedies, social satires and the genre near to all our hearts – Action Cinema!
Early Action Attempts
His first foray into action was a modern retelling of the western Rio Bravo in the 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13. Made for under $100K with a cast of unknowns, it told the story of cops and criminals trapped in a decommissioned police station that need to put their differences aside when they come under siege from the street gang in retaliation for the murder of their leader. What follows is a cat and mouse game as the survivors repel attack after attack before they make their final stand. Suspenseful stuff done on a shoe string budget. An early scene shows a small girl get shot for no reason while eating an ice cream cone.
The MPPA told Carpenter the movie would be rated X if that scene remained. Carpenter told them he would take the scene out and got his R rating…and was such a rebel he left the scene in. This scene was the perfect metaphor for the senseless violence and utter brutality of the neighborhood the movie takes place in. This movie is considered one of the great exploitation movies of the 70’s and made Premiere Magazine’s list of Lost But Profound Movies.
Enter Kurt Russell
After tearing up the horror genre and single handily creating the slasher genre, Carpenter returned to action and his view of America in decline with 1981’s Escape From New York. He teamed up with Kurt Russell, who was eager to shed his clean cut image from his Disney movies…and shed it he did in creating one of the most memorable characters in all of pop culture- Snake Plissken! Set in the then future of 1997, Manhattan has become a walled in maximum security prison where the inmates are allowed to rule themselves. Into this hellhole crashes the President of the United States who was traveling to a peace summit with some MacGuffin that will bring about world peace.
The only man that can bring him out? One war hero who has turned his back on society named Snake Plissken, who is being sentenced there anyhow for trying to rob the federal reserve. What follows is the greatest B movie in history, as one eyed, world weary Snake shoots, cage fights and snarls his way trough this society like he owns the place. The climax has Snake rocketing across the boobytrapped Brooklyn Bridge, with the president in tow and The Duke played by Isaac Hayes standing in his way. The movie has one of the most nihilistic endings in history before The Thing came along.
Mr. Carpenter Goes to Chinatown
And what director wouldn’t want to make a martial art move? More specifically, a Wuxia movie, which is a Chinese hero movie characterized by magic, demons and exaggerated martial arts using wires and trampolines. I believe Carpenter has claim to being the first Western director to do one and set it in modern times. This was years before America embraced the genre with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a decade later. Carpenter adapted a script from the guy who wrote Buckaroo Banzai, set it in modern day Chinatown, re-teamed with his buddy Kurt Russell and called it Big Trouble in Little China. Unfortunately 1986 America simply wasn’t ready for a film of this caliber.
Russell plays Jack Burton, a truck driver that comes to Chinatown to collect on a debt and finds himself embroiled in a Chinese demon’s quest to marry a green eyed American women. Russell’s performance is pure gold and one of the greatest subtleties of the script is that the blowhard American so full of himself fails to realize, he’s actually the sidekick in his own movie. The real hero is Chinese American Wang Chi played by Dennis Dun, who constantly steps up to save the day. You will grow to love this movie upon repeated viewings. Carpenter was so crushed by the failure of this and The Thing at the box office and the pressures the studios put him under, he left Hollywood and went back to making independent films.
The Mean Streets of LA
This year also seen the release of a car fu movie based on the first script Carpenter ever sold called Black Moon Rising. Carpenter had nothing to do with the making of this film but I consider it a minor classic. So much so I reviewed it on this site a couple of months ago. Carpenter also brought Russell back to the city in 1996 with Escape From L.A., but sadly lightening did not strike twice. Now with twice the budget, it came off as a scene by scene remake of the original with a few absurd and lazy writing action sequences-surfing or basketball, anyone?
Now Los Angeles is an island because of earthquakes, run by a revolutionary at war with the United States. Our president is a theocratic dictator who has made everything illegal under threat of death. When his daughter steals the launch code for a doomsday weapon, the only man who can go in is one Snake Plissken. Russell was starting to show his age on this film, and quite frankly so was Carpenter, and they phoned this one in. It did manage to top the ending of the first one as Snake fixed the world his way!
Action Mixed with Politics
1988 saw Carpenter tackle social satire in trying to explain the Reagan 80s and make the greatest use of a professional wrestler in movie history with They Live. How did Carpenter explain America’s slide this time? Aliens! Walking among us and controlling us trough subliminal advertising. Humanity’s last hope is a couple of working stiffs played by Roddy Piper and Keith David, who discover a type of ray ban sunglasses that allow us to see the aliens and society as it really is. What elevated this movie is perhaps the most beloved and brutal fights in movie history between our two heroes over putting on the sunglasses.
Six minutes long in an alley in all its head butting, knee dropping, suplexing and nut crushing glory. From there, they join forces with an underground resistance and storm the TV station broadcasting the subliminal messages and engage in all manner of mayhem to get to the satellite dish to try and save the world. But does it care and does it even want to be saved? This movie harkens back to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only now we are awake. It’s a modern classic made before the internet and the current political climate that screams out to be remade!
Editor’s Note: Read the full UAMC review on how THEY LIVE is still relevant today here!
The Supernatural James Woods
1998 saw Carpenter conquer one of the few genres he had left to conquer with Vampires. In it, James Woods plays a vampire hunter for the Catholic Church whose out for revenge and to keep the vampires from acquiring an object that will allow them to walk in the light. If that sounds a lot like Blade, you wouldn’t be wrong but Blade beat it to the punch with a better telling and budget and completely eclipsed this gem.
But it did turn out to be Carpenter’s last box office success and he took it on because he taught of it as a modern day Western, not realizing what the vampire genre would become. Once again, Carpenter was well ahead of his times. It deserves a look to see how vampire movies have evolved and to see James Woods in full on action mode. Pity the vampires!
Escape from Mars
Carpenter’s last theatrical release was 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. Here’s some great backstory that will justify a repeat viewing of the property. Originally, it was titled Escape From Mars and was supposed to be the third film in the Snake Plissken Chronicles. The problem came when the suits at the studio looked at LA’s box office returns. They then decided they needed a more bankable star to play the most dangerous outlaw in the galaxy. They passed on a pre-Transporter Jason Statham and instead cast Ice-T, in a story about a prisoner transport gone wrong after a human colony is possessed by the spirits of dead aliens. Normally, I would tell you to just watch Pitch Black instead. But if you have the imagination to see Snake Plissken instead of Ice-T, and think of what this movie could have been, it bears a repeat viewing.
John Carpenter’s Action Movie Legacy
Sadly, Hollywood has taken to mining the titles and remaking much of Carpenter’s best work. 2005 saw a remake of Assault on Precinct 13 that was actually pretty good. 12 years ago, there was talk of an Escape From NY remake staring Gerald Butler that went nowhere. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is currently attached to a Big Trouble reboot. Carpenter scripted a 14 issue run on a Big Trouble comic book by Dynamite that served as a direct sequel to the movie. 2015 also saw Carpenter successfully sue action giant Luc Besson for plagiarism for a 2012 movie called Lockout, which was basically Escape From NY on a space station.
We have also seen a number of his films get reissued on Blue Ray with all new commentary tracks by Carpenter himself. But to purists like myself remakes, homages and outright ripoffs will never do Carpenter justice. We will always have Carpenter’s original body of work across the action and horror genres. And for that, we should be eternally grateful to one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th Century. John Carpenter Lives!
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