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He did it. He shut down the Earth.

Escape from L.A.
(1996)

(SPOILERS) It seems it was Kurt Russell’s enthusiasm for his most iconic character (no, not Captain Ron) that got Escape from L.A. made. That makes sense, because there’s precious little evidence here that John Carpenter gave two shits. This really was his point of no return, I think. His last great chance to show his mettle. But lent a decent-sized budget (equivalent to five times that of Escape from New York) he squandered it, delivering an inert TV movie that further rubs salt in the wound by operating as a virtual remake of the original. Just absent any of the wit, atmosphere, pace and inspiration.

I was an apologist for the picture for a long while. Never to the extent of suggesting it was actually good, but certainly arguing it wasn’t that bad. But it is. Escape from L.A. is a bad movie. An early example of the trend in decade-plus-later sequels and strong evidence that the nostalgia at play is predominately a trickster destined to elicit ultimate disappointment.

Yes, it’s very easy to blame Gary B Kibbe’s appallingly flat, lifeless cinematography, ebbing the life out from every single shot and scene, but Carpenter knew what the guy was doing and what he was capable – or incapable – of (this was their sixth collaboration). I’ve compared their relationship to Spielberg’s with Janusz Kaminski, but whatever Kaminski’s faults (and they’re essentially that he can only light in one style, irrespective of tonal or genre needs), he clearly is a skilled technician. Kibbe’s work with Carpenter, particularly their last four films, is barely functional (I’ll still go to bat for In the Mouth of Madness being an exception that proves the rule).

One half wonders if there was some kind of bloody-mindedness going on, so inept is the picture visually (the effects stink, the costumes are terrible, the makeup lousy). It leaves one retrospectively thinking the reason Escape from New York is so good is down to Dean Cundey, and Carpenter simply lucked in by working with a really talented DP over the span of a (almost) decade.

I don’t think anyone, anywhere, is drinking Carpenter’s particular brand of Kool-Aid when he insists Escape from L.A. is far, far better than its predecessor, it just hasn’t been recognised as such yet. It’s not just better, its “ten times better. It’s got more to it. It’s more mature. It’s got a lot more to it. I think people didn’t like it because they felt it was a remake, not a sequel”. He goes on to cite Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and El Dorado as an example, and insists its time hasn’t come (“Yeah, but you just wait. You’ve got to give me a little while. People will say, you know, what was wrong with me?”)

Sorry, John, but it’s almost 25 years. If it were going to happen, it would have done long ago. I don’t necessarily think the virtual remake approach was doomed to fail (and I definitely don’t think that’s why it flopped), but the self-conscious larkiness on display is of the kind where, for the most part, timing is everything. And Escape from L.A. doesn’t have it. If it had served up Snake Plissken in something as inventive as Big Trouble in Little China, riffing on his macho-isms and legendary status, that could have been fun. Feasibly. But the timing of gags is excruciating, from the first “I thought he’d be taller” onwards.

Given the amount it copies, Escape from L.A. also manages some serious feats of ungainly establishing detail compared to its cleanly-defined, streamlined predecessor. By 1998, a year after the events of Escape from New York, the Los Angeles has become “ravaged by crime and immorality”, necessitating the formation of the United States Police Force. An earthquake on August 23 2000, predicted by Cliff Robertson’s God-bothering presidential candidate as divine punishment, leads to LA becoming an island. Upon his being granted a life term as president, he issues Directive 17, deporting any undesirables there, minus their citizenship. It’s all very untidy and needlessly involved, presumably as a means for Carpenter (writing with Russell and producer Debra Hill) to take some shots at religious extremism that are in no danger of landing (actually, Russell takes credit for the President’s outlook). It’s also surely no coincidence that the first on the don’ts list is smoking:

Malloy: The United States is a no smoking nation. No smoking, no drinking, no drugs, no women. Unless, of course, you’re married. No guns, no foul language, no red meat.
Snake: Land of the free.

All that remains is for an important figure/item to end up in this banishment zone, now rolled forward to 2013, and the need for Snake’s services to retrieve them/it. This comes in the form of the President’s Patty Hearst-styled daughter Utopia (AJ Langer, now Countess of Devon), who, having fallen under the spell of Georges Corraface’ Che Guevara clone – the threat to the US is now from South America, rather than Russia – steals the remote control for the President’s EM pulse wielding satellite array.

You might think that, once Snake is introduced and the ticking clock established – this time via infection with the Plutoxin 7 virus – the movie just needs to propel itself from set piece to set piece, but at no point does it muster any momentum. There’s a series of repeats of Escape from New York, but they tend to be tiresome. Instead of a glider, Snake arrives in a sub. Which, like the glider, he loses (the visuals are lousy; the budget effects for the glider were way better). Corraface is Isaac Hayes, but lacking his presence. Steve Buscemi’s Maps to the Stars Eddie is a combination of Cabbie and Brain, and represents possibly the nadir of that Buscemi schtick: a reminder that he was entirely stereotyped as the untrustworthy weasel in only a few short years. Valeria Golino’s female cannon fodder vaguely echoes Adrienne Barbeau (she dies bloodily). Peter Fonda’s surfer is a joke without a punchline (unless you think he and Snake, having a conversation while surfing a wave, is the height of hilarity. It is, at least, indicative that Die Hard with a Vengeance didn’t have the 90s monopoly on cheesy water-spout gags).

Stacy Keach and Michelle Forbes do their best with very little. Which is to say, Lee Van Cleef made something much more memorable in less screen time. Likewise, Robertson is an utterly bland President, even with his ruthless attitude toward his daughter (it fits the life President idea that this was originally planned for Donald Pleasance).

Only Bruce Campbell and Pam Grier make much of a positive impression. The former has a brief, prosthetics-shrouded scene as the plastic-surgery-happy Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (“What a beautiful blue eye. Shame he only has one”). If one were to be generous, one might suggest Grier’s transsexual ex-partner of Snake was prescient, except that she’s only there so Kurt can annoy her with her former name (Carjack Malone). Still, it does mean Carpenter had the jump on both Tarantino and Soderbergh, using Grier and Fonda just before they were “rediscovered” by more feted filmmakers. That’s the problem here all over, though. The picture has the same eye for eclectic casting as the original, but it’s entirely squandered.

Kibbe ensures any effects-heavy action, be it earthquakes or floods, or hang-gliding, looks shoddy and poorly staged and lit. There’s zero atmosphere to the various locations – usually advised by a street sign, or a burning Hollywood one – and gang scenes There are a couple of moments where there’s a sense of what might have been; Kurt giving chase to Cuervo’s convoy on a bike never breaks a sweat, but it at least it has structural beats on its side. And the basketball scene is about the only sequence that does succeed in mustering some tension (curious that Alien Resurrection would also sport futuristic basketball skills the following year. And use Leland Orser, but more memorably). Kurt made all the shots himself, apparently.

Is there any evidence that Escape from L.A. is more mature, as Carpenter claims? A movie where the activation code is 666? I suppose it echoes the sense that the chaotic lawlessness of Escape from New York, for all that it has the vibes of a waking nightmare, at least represent a degree of personal autonomy. Moments before she is shot, Golino’s Taslima calls LA “the only free zone left, anywhere” and Snake nods an understanding “Dark paradise”. If you substitute Carpenter’s religious iron fist for technocratic rigour, you mightn’t be so far off in 2020 (once the dust has settled from rioting and economic collapse).

Malloy: 100% pure death Complete nervous system shutdown. You crash. You bleed out like a stuck pig. Not a pretty sight.

And there’s also the cynicism towards state-sanctioned fear. The President is opportunistic in bringing in his sweeping societal changes post 23/8 in the manner of 9/11, while the virus that has Snake all flustered, promising him less than ten hours to live, is actually no more than a “fast, hard-hitting case of the flu”. All that needless concern and stress about a deadly virus? “It’s bullshit, baby. Rumour control. Government propaganda. Just one more lie.

Malloy: You push that button, everything we’ve accomplished for the past five hundred years will be finished. Our technology. Our way of life. Our entire history. We’ll have to start all over again.

Unfortunately, even if that kind of element were representative, Escape from L.A. would still be a bust. At a lean 100 minutes, it still manages to crawl along interminably. Russell’s fine, but he’s acting in a vacuum for the most part. Perhaps his behind-the-scenes contribution to Tombstone had inspired him to greater creatively involvement, but it was for nought. Besides which, this period showed he was faring much better in everyman roles (Executive Decision, Breakdown) than hard-man ones (Soldier being his nadir, and something of a line under his viable status as a leading man). Snake Plissken? I thought he’d be better than this. Ah well, I guess Guy Pearce got to play a version that was.


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