by Mel Valentin
In 1981, John Carpenter directed and co-wrote "Escape From New York," with Kurt Russell in a career-making (or rather re-making) performance as the soon-to-be iconic hero, Snake Plissken, an ex-Special Forces mercenary forced to save the president of the United States from a gang of ruthless thugs in a futuristic Manhattan turned into a maximum security prison. Made for a modest, $5.5 million dollars, [i]Escape From New York[/i] grossed more than five times its original budget in the United States (it doubled that amount with foreign ticket sales). A sequel seemed inevitable, but it took another fifteen years before Snake Plissken made his return to the screen in "Escape From L.A." Critics lambasted Carpenter and Russell's collaboration as an expensive joke/remake of the original. Bad worth-of-mouth contributed to poor box-office results.Almost ten years after its release, it seems appropriate for a reevaluation of Escape From L.A.. Surprisingly, critics and audiences seemed to have missed the often-prescient satire underlying Escape From L.A.. With Russell as a co-screenwriter, everything from religious conservatism to the culture of narcissism prevalent among Hollywood's elites was fair game. Snake Plissken, however, is still the staunchly anti-authoritarian, self-reliant anti-hero, but even more nihilistic than he was in the first film. Fans and critics, however, point to the obvious similarities between the two films, beginning with near identical voiceover narrations describing the state of the United States (from bad to worse), and ending with Plissken once again deciding to reject social inclusion and acting to bring anarchy chaos to the United States and the world (social goods, once you see what the president-for-life has done to the United States).
"Unfairly maligned sequel to the cult classic is a wickedly dead-on satire."
1998, the future. A Pat Robertson-like religious zealot (Cliff Robertson) prophesizes that California will suffer a massive earthquake at the turn of the millennium. It does, with Los Angeles broken off into an island, catapulting him into a national leader and the presidency. Once in office, the U.S. Constitution is changed, making him president-for-life. The United States has become Moral America, a thinly veiled theocracy founded on Christian fundamentalist values. Americans who commit so-called "moral crimes," are exiled to Los Angeles, losing all rights and privileges, including the right to return.
The president's daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), unhappy for multiple reasons, including her father's dictatorial rule, runs off to Los Angeles and into the arms into Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), a Che Guevara look-alike hoping to lead an invasion of California and the United States. Utopia holds the key to Cuervo's plans, or rather a black box she's carrying holds the key to Cuervo’s plans for upending the social and political order. The black box is more or less a doomsday device. Malloy (Stacy Keach), a high-ranking officer in the U.S. Police Force, and his assistant, Brazen (Michelle Forbes), enlists the aid of the newly captured Plissken. Once again, Plissken is given a deadline, return with the black box or die a horrible death (this time thanks to a designer virus called "Plutoxin-7"). Plissken has no choice but to comply, of course.
Entering via submersible (he entered Manhattan via glider in the first film), Snake encounters Pipeline (Peter Fonda), a burnt-out hippie type whose life revolves around surfing. Pipeline is of little help, sending Snake on his own into the heart of a ruined Los Angeles. There, he meets up with the fast-talking, not-to-trusted Map to the Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi), who promises to take Snake to Cuervo Jones' location. Separated, Snake meets Taslima (Valeria Golino), a woman convicted for being a Muslim in South Dakota and exiled to L.A. Snake almost immediately runs afoul of the Surgeon General (Bruce Campbell, almost unrecognizable under pounds of latex and makeup). The Surgeon General continues to operate a lucrative cosmetic surgery practice in the Hollywood hills (many of his patients have been scarred beyond recognition).
Snake escapes, of course, with gunfights, fistfights (including one with Cuervo Jones at the climax of the film), and along the way, a makeshift basketball game where Snake is forced to play for his life (it substitutes for the gladiatorial contest from the first film), and some surfing, using a conveniently occurring tsunami to ride to get closer to his objectives. Eventually, Snake runs in and enlists the help of an old criminal associate, Hershe Las Palmas (Pam Grier), a powerful gang boss in her own right. Cue an end-film confrontation with Malloy and the venal, cowardly president (qualities he shares with the president from the Escape From New York), with Snake displaying a bit of forward thinking. The fate of the world hangs in the balance.
Escape From L.A.'s detractors will point to the overly familiar storyline, suggesting that Escape From L.A. is nothing more than a big-budget remake of the original film, with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell enjoying a big payday and a joke on the audience. They're certainly right that Escape From L.A. is almost a shot-for-shot remake, but that position fails to take into account the differences, both obvious and subtle, between the two films, particularly the already mentioned political and social satire. They either disagree with Carpenter and Russell's positions (Carpenter tends toward the liberal-progressive end of the spectrum while Russell tends toward the libertarian end, with both displaying disgust with religious or social conservatism) or simply refuse to acknowledge their presence in a presumably "dumb" action/adventure flick.Others will immediately point out the admittedly cheesy special effects, but that point belies the solid effects sequence that opens the film or later sequences that are, at minimum, passable. Only two scenes stand out as truly awful, the early submersible scene handled strictly through CGI and later, the surfing scene, with glaring backscreen projections making a mockery of any attempt at verisimilitude. But the surfing scene is meant to be over-the-top, ridiculous to the extreme (it ends with Snake catapulting himself into a moving car). It seems like too many detractors miss Carpenter and Russell's attempts at tongue-in-cheek humor. Alas, it's their loss. "Escape From L.A." may have been simply ahead of its time in 1996. Almost ten years later, Carpenter and Russell's fans are still (mostly) unforgiving, but a "fresh" view combined with a more critical attitude just might change their minds.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=612&reviewer=402
originally posted: 12/05/05 08:49:49