Back when Escape from L.A. (1996, directed by John Carpenter) was in theaters, a friend of mine suggested that John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, and the late Debra Hill had photocopied the screenplay for Escape from New York, whited out all mentions of New York, and penciled "L.A." in its place. Certainly, the scenario is the same, if adapted for the left coast. The two films are similar, too, in so far as they're both films with ideas that exceed the reach of their available resources. This is perhaps an exaggeration. Escape from New York was a far more serious-minded exploitation film than its sequel. Escape from L.A., on the other hand, seems like some kind of demonic parody of the original film, of tough-guy action pictures in general, and of the body politic in 1996.
The story is set 15 years after Escape from New York, in 2013. A theocratic government has taken control of the United States, and there's a purge going on. All "undesirables" are being shipped to the island of Los Angeles, which was cut off from the mainland when half of it sank beneath the ocean during "The Big One." L.A., like New York before it, is walled off by the fascist United States Police Force. There is no escape and no law and order in the city. The president's wayward daughter, Utopia, steals the codes for a ring of neutron bomb EMP satellites and takes them into L.A. at the urging of Cuervo Jones, a would-be Che Guevara intent on taking down the United States. As with New York, the government "convinces" captured supercriminal, Snake Plissken, to go into the city and retrieve the doomsday device. Rescuing the president's daughter is not on the table. In fact, he'd just as soon Plissken kill her. Once inside, things go from bad to worse: Jones is coordinating the invasion of the United States from Cuba, and there are the huddled masses of LA's undesirables between Plissken and his goal.
The principle pleasure in Escape from L.A. is watching Kurt Russell swagger through the role of Snake Plissken. There have been rumblings in the last decade of a remake of Escape from New York, but I can't imagine that ever working, because even in this film, Russell IS Plissken. This film gives Plissken perhaps his defining moment, when, surrounded by goons, he suggests they fight by Bangkok rules in which you throw a can in the air and draw when it hits the ground. Plissken shoots all of them before the can comes down. It was such a good scene that it featured prominently in the film's trailer. They've also recut the look of Plissken, who first appears in the costume from the first film only to have it replaced by the kind of nineties fetish chic that would inform the Matrix movies three years later. Russell wears it well. This film also puts Plissken on a motorcycle, which is such a natural thing for him that one wishes that it had happened in the first film.
The various interludes and characters that Plissken encounters on the way are where the film gets into trouble. In principle, characters like Pipeline (a surfer dude whose waves of choice are tsunamis), Maps to the Stars Eddie (a hustling and duplicitous guide to Los Angeles), and Hershe Las Palmas (an old acquaintance of Plissken's who has been through some changes), should all work fine. They're even perfectly cast (Peter Fonda, Steve Buscemi, and Pam Grier respectively). But there's something just "off" about them, and I think it comes down to the fact that the production itself seems cheapjack around them. They don't convince as characters because the world they inhabit doesn't convince as a real world. The only one of Plissken's interludes that really works is his encounter with the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills and his cult of surgery addicts. The Surgeon is played by Bruce Campbell under a ton of prosthetics, and it occurred to me that this sequence works while others don't because it's all practical. Most of the environments in Escape from L. A. are a combination of miniature and computers, and in 1996, that was a dicey proposition if you didn't have the budget for it (and this didn't). The Surgeon's environment, though, goes back to Carpenter's horror movie roots and it works splendidly. This sequence is profoundly icky, and contains more actual horror than either of Carpenter's next two ostensible horror movies.
The film also trips itself up in its own reflexivity. The first film was certainly parodic at times, but on the whole, it cloaked its parody under a veneer of grimy exploitation. This film is too slick for that--too slick for its own good, actually. It's obviously a film about movies--which is defensible, I suppose--but it's so unsubtle about it that it falls flat. When Plissken's submersible glides by a submerged Universal Studios, for instance, and is snapped at by a Great White Shark, you're looking at filmmakers that are using sledgehammers rather than scalpels. And if this wasn't enough, there's a shot late in the movie of the Hollywood sign surrounded by fire, as if Carpenter is giving Hollywood a deserving middle finger. This extends to the casting of the film. Rather than embrace any kind of exploitation tradition, this film settles for name-dropping. It's got the surfer movie and the biker movie incarnated by Peter Fonda, it's got the Blaxploitation film incarnated by Pam Grier. And, oh look, if you blink you'll miss Paul Bartel standing in the background of a shot of the President.
As an aside: Pam Grier's character, Hershe Las Palmas nee' Carjack Malone, is personally problematic, given that the film includes her gender identity as a joke and features Plissken repeatedly disrespecting it. But I'm not as upset by this as I might be. If you're going to have a badass black trans woman played by a cis woman, that actress might as well be Pam Grier. I wish they'd let her speak in her own voice, though. The electronic filtering they've used for her is just weird. It jars this viewer, at least, out of the film.
This film suffers, too, from a villain who doesn't cut the mustard. Georges Corraface's Cuervo Jones is remarkably lacking in personality. I think this stems partially from how he's filmed. If there's a shot of this character that's not closer than a medium two-shot, I missed it. Most of his scenes are shot in master shots, which puts him at a distance. The first film's Duke of New York was an indelible villain, in part because of Isaac Hayes's on-screen charisma. Cuervo Jones is almost anonymous, though perhaps intentionally so. Jones's ride is a version of The Duke's ride, with a disco ball mounted on it and a decorated with a collection of severed dolls' heads, suggesting that Jones is a playtime villain compared to The Duke, who decorated his own car with real heads.
It should go without saying, given its premise, that this is an overtly political film. Carpenter has never had any use for Republicans, and his send up of Republican theocratic tendencies here is laced with a fair amount of contempt. And yet, the politics of this film manage to congeal and muddle late in the movie, as Carpenter lets his more libertarian strain show through. He likes the freedom to eat meat or smoke or have sex, and although he's explicitly railing against conservative ideologies, his demonization of "political correctness" has the opposite effect. So too, does the nature of his villains, who are scary brown people trying to invade the US. I don't think Carpenter means this to be racist--I think he's more interested in ideology than race--but intentions aren't magic. The film ameliorates this a bit with Valeria Golina's character, Taslima, who the fascists have kicked out of the country for being a Muslim in South Dakota. One wish she had more to do in the film before getting killed.
Carpenter has occasionally mentioned that three of his films--The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness--form a loose "apocalypse trilogy." I'm tempted to add this film to that grouping. Sure, it's different in tone, and downright goofy most of the time, but that scene at the end of the film when the lights go out all over the world is of a piece. The movie has its flaws--whoa, Nellie! Does it have its flaws--but I remember really grooving on the end of this film when I originally saw it in theaters. This film's apocalypse is more audacious than anything else in Carpenter's films of the 1990s, and it really deserves a better movie than the one that precedes it. Mind you, there are pleasures to be had.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 17
First Time Viewings: 15
Around the Web:
Apropos of this post, Sean Axmaker expounds on why John Carpenter is the most underrated filmmaker of our time over at IndieWire.
Justin at The Bloody Pit of Horror has a terrific list of Overlooked Horror Films of the 1980s that dives seriously deep into offbeat cinema. This is NOT your standard link-bait list of minor classics.
Tim at The Other Side is back with Jean Rollin, looking at the director's Two Orphan Vampires.
Daily Grindhouse, meanwhile, looks back at Murnau's Nosferatu.
Finally, Michael Koresky at the Sundance blog makes his case for Lewton's The Seventh Victim as one of the greatest of all films. He gets no argument from me.