Snake Plissken. A gruff, eyepatch-sporting, former special forces anti-hero who takes no crap and eschews authority… except when it forces him into a seemingly suicidal mission to rescue the US President from New York City. That might not seem like the toughest task in these days of the Disney-dominated Times Square but in John Carpenter’s 1981 film, the future is a screwed up, post-apocalyptic place and Manhattan has been fenced off to become a maximum security prison. It’s a compelling enough concept that Hollywood has been trying to reboot, reimagine or remake for a while now, without success. Now, as 20th Century Fox picks up the rights to have a go, we look back at those who have taken a stab in the past, their chosen stars and the ideas to tweak the plot.
Before all the talk of reboots was but a twitch at the side of a studio executive’s mouth, John Carpenter himself was trying to extend the Snake franchise, with varying results. 1996’s Escape From L.A. saw Kurt Russell back as Snake, this time assigned to retrieve a stolen super weapon from Los Angeles – here part of a Californian island formed when a massive earthquake strikes the state. The film finds Carpenter attempting the bottle the same cynical, satirical feel of the original, but despite a decade-long development process and staunch support from Russell, it ended up disappointing audiences, critics and even Carpenter himself, who has since described it as “too campy.” It earned roughly the same amount as New York at the box office, but with a much higher budget, was marked down as a failure. Carpenter has also since tried to make an anime spin-off, announcing that Outlaw Star director Mitsuru Hongo would direct the ‘toon version, but that has failed to materialise.
In 2007, there was much fervour over the idea that Snake Plissken would be coming back to cinemas with a new face: that of Gerard Butler. The Scottish tough guy seemed like the right choice for the role, but not everyone was convinced. Asked about the idea, Kurt Russell commented, “I will say that when I was told who was going to play Snake Plissken, my initial reaction was, 'Oh, man!' I do think that character was quintessentially one thing. And that is, American." Ouch. But with Carpenter involved as an executive producer, franchise maven Neal Moritz – the man behind The Fast And The Furious films – had partnered with New Line to develop a new take on the story that would either blend a new tale with the original concept or, according to Carpenter, figure out a prequel tale.
Black Hawk Down’s Ken Nolan got the scriptwriting job and Len Wiseman signed on to direct. But he soon dropped out, to be replaced by rumours that Brett Ratner would take it on. When he failed to formally commit, New Line brought in Jonathan Mostow to rewrite the script with an option to direct, but that didn’t lead anywhere either. Butler himself dropped out shortly after that, citing the old “creative differences” reasoning, and New Line turned to Allan Loeb for yet another draft.
Without a leading man in place, New Line and Warner Bros. kept trying to make it work, hiring Breck ‘Sahara’ Eisner as the new director. He and the producers opted to shake up the basic idea, dumping the vision of a post-apocalyptic New York for one that was rebuilt after a bomb. “Conceptually, it’s an idea that’s not true today because of the world we live in. So, how the prison is created is going to be different than in Carpenter’s version,” he said. “The anxiety of the world and anxiety of our existence post-9/11 is there, especially the anxiety in Manhattan post-9/11. Plot-wise, they’re different, emotionally they’re very similar. That’s why it’ll be interesting to tackle this movie, to have a slightly different take but with the same results which is Manhattan is turned into a walled prison.”
Fresh from success with The Crazies, Eisner was quick to point to that film’s leading man – Justified star Timothy Olyphant – as a potential Snake. “We can’t make the movie unless we get the perfect Snake Plissken, and that’s a tall order. There are very few guys that could do it. He would definitely be one of the guys who could. There is no question about that.” Alas for fans of Marshal Raylan Givens, it never came to pass. There was some chatter about Jeremy Renner taking on the role, but that also failed to evolve from rumour to reality.
Despite all those various excited announcements about talent and plot concepts, Warner Bros. and New Line ultimately decided that they just couldn’t find the right film. The companies, even after briefly trying to convince Tom Hardy to take the role, let the rights escape in July 2011. Things went quiet for a couple of years until Joel Silver announced that thanks to a deal with original rights holders StudioCanal, he had the option to bring Snake back to life.
And Silver had big plans. He wanted to turn back the clock and explore the events leading up to Manhattan’s prison status, while also taking in some of Snake’s background. Though that sounded worrying like Snake Plissken: High School Rebel, Silver expanded on his concept in February last year. “There was a videogame that came out a few years ago called Arkham City, which shows how Gotham became this walled prison," says Silver. "And they never deal with that in the story of Escape From New York, so part of our idea was to see how the city became this walled prison and how the Snake Plissken character was a hero and how he became not looked at as a hero." In Silver’s ideal world, the film would be a trilogy – background first, the basic story of the original Escape in the second and a return trip to however New York looks years later in the third. No visits to LA planned, in case you were concerned.
But even Silver has seemingly stalled. Very little has been heard since then, despite fanciful rumours about Dan Stevens, Charlie Hunnam and The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal taking on the lead and ideas about a team of vigilantes backing up our hero on his mission. Which brings us almost up to date...
Just this week, it was announced that Fox had won a competitive bidding war for the rights to the project. So far, nothing has been revealed about the plans by the studio (or Andrew Rona and Alex Heineman's The Picture Company, on board to produce), other than that they want to start from scratch. All the older scripts will be ditched and a new filmmaking team put in place. The biggest challenge ahead will be charting a course between those who absolutely don’t think that Escape needs to be remade at all, and people who have a fondness for the original, but don’t consider it to be perfect.
There’s scope for more of Carpenter’s satirical style if you can find the right person to tackle the script: letting original flavour RoboCop writer Edward Neumeier - who also breathed subversive life into Starship Troopers - have a crack is one idea that springs to mind. But the key will be finding someone who embodies the same blend of devil-may-care bravado that Russell brought to the role. Because if you can’t make Snake iconic, what’s the point?