Synopsis: Following a massive earthquake strong enough to break off LA from the continent and Christian fundamentalism’s rise to take over US government, America becomes a proud, pious utopia (or a dystopia to those who aren’t buying in to that particular form of Christianity). An elected for life President (Cliff Robertson) rules the nation with a tyrannical fist. By 2013, a witch-hunt of sorts is underway to identify all the unwanted, the ungodly, and the general refuse. Once they are identified as moral law violators, these rejects are stripped of citizenship and deported to the island of Los Angeles (providing they don’t want voluntary death by electric chair while still on American soil). Unfortunately, the president’s daughter Utopia (A. J. Langer) falls for the wrong guy (ala Patty Hearst), a revolutionary leader in LA named Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), and she absconds with the control system to a dangerous WMD. The Sword of Damocles is a series of satellites that can bathe the earth with Electro-Magnetic Pulses (EMPs), rendering all electronics useless. Whoever controls the satellites can turn targets ranging from a single vehicle to an entire nation to the world itself into a place where no electronics work whatsoever. Cuervo has given the US an ultimatum, deliver him from LA island within 12 hours or get reverted back to the Stone Age. The nation has one chance to stop him, and that chance is Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), recently picked up during a robbery and found guilty of dozens of Moral Crimes. His mission: Get the box back. Also, kill the president’s daughter since she is a wanton hussy and an ungodly stain on the President’s moral fiber. His reward: Full pardon as well as the cure for an experimental neurotoxin administered upon his arrival at the deportation center. Snake makes his way to LA and through a bunch of satiric, action-sf set pieces on his mission. He encounters a bunch of locals, including the sleazy agent Maps to the Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi), the sadistic Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (Bruce Campbell), the transwoman crook Hershe (Pam Grier), and of course Cuervo Jones himself. Along the way, he gets shot at, shoots back, has to play hoops for his life, rides a killer tsunami wave with Pipeline (Peter Fonda), and of course saves the day in his own antiheroic way. He’s Snnnnnnake Plissken, a little shorter than some people expect and not half as dead as others hear, and he’s the man of the hour (well, hour-and-a-half) in John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM LA (1996).
When ESCAPE FROM LA was announced back in the ’90s, I expected a straightforward action piece ala the original flick. Sure, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK offered some humorous jabs at 1970s/early 1980s New York culture and maybe even politics (Hell, the British actor Donald Pleasance played a US President, after all) but it worked as a violent action-adventure piece. When I saw the picture while growing up in the 1980s, I may have missed out on the references but still managed to enjoy the flick. ESCAPE FROM LA seemed like a continuation of the theme, maybe with some jabs at 1990s, but no matter what John Carpenter and Kurt Russell were teaming back up for action-adventure and bad ass anti-heroics. I assumed they were going to give us a kick butt flick. I do not think I was alone in that expectation.
Well, the film is actually none-too-subtle satire, a comedy that spoofs the action genre as well as taking the piss out of dozens of additional targets. Sure there are occasional more-or-less “traditional” badass moments—a motorcycle chase allows Snake to move from vehicle to vehicle in his relentless pursuit of Cuervo, while in a different scene, a gunfight using “Bangkok Rules ” proposes Plissken and his four opponents wait for a can to hit the ground before drawing, rules that are there to take advantage of the gullible—but more often than not the movie sneers at our expectations and goes the way of lampooning LA, hammering the movie biz and its associated parasites (the Hollywood sign blazes in a never-ending bonfire, Beverly Hills has become home to a bunch of plastic surgery mutants in need of fresh graft sources, and Maps To The Stars Eddie keeps looking for new and improved ways to leech off his “clients”), as well as taking deep cuts of the Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell visions of America. The place Snake is deported from is a chaste, no red meat, no smoking nation, while LA is anarchy unbound. Neither extreme is all that good, but this is a movie that paints in extremes. Its world heaves left and right and seldom makes room for the folks who veer toward the middle. In fact, as shown in the case of one LA resident, Taslima (Valeria Golino), when the rational case is made that LA can be okay when you learn the rules, that more-or-less rational point of view ends up getting ya killed.
Spoiler Alert: Regardless of affiliation, most of the people Snake encounters (be they allies or enemies) end up dead by the film’s end, while Snake saunters off into a new Dark Age on a world he judges, juries, and subsequently executes sneering about the human race. Or is that Human Race, akin to DEATH RACE (1975, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2018, etc.)?
And yet, the movie still manages to be prescient in terms of how our modern day is looking. While we don’t have an island Los Angeles or an Arizona Bay thanks to The Big One breaking off the west coast, we still see a political machine concerned with detaining undesirables and broadening the definition of who is not wanted in the land of the free and the home of the brave. One of the characters in the film, when asked what moral crime she got picked up on, replies, “I was a Moslem in South Dakota.” Although much of the speculative pieces are not quite accurate (though Gitmo and the big nonsense happening about border walls is not too far from the film’s spin, are they?) there are little slices of truth served up in this action-adventure picture. National intolerance is a big topic these days, after all, and we don’t have a Snake Plissken to pull the plug should things go too far . . .
Okay, soapbox moment ended.
The movie, taken on its own merits and not on the often unfair expectations we bring to it, is a hoot. Its comedy is broad, its targets relatively easy, but it takes a talented, filmmaking warrior who has been made a Hollywood darling and then shunned after a series of box office failures (well, the returns were failures, the movies themselves have more often than not since become classics of the genre) to pick and choose these targets. John Carpenter is surely such a warrior. The script by Carpenter, Producer Debra Hill, and star Russell take a lot of fun shots and present a bunch of fun set pieces for Snake to make his way through, and it rings with the authenticity of folks who have seen some rotten things and want to kick over some complacent anthills.
Of course, Kurt Russell shines as the aged but nevertheless indomitable anti-hero he created in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981). He swaggers, he snarls, he whispers in sinister ways, and he kicks much butt as the moment requires. He and his stuntman also suffer in several unusual ways, forced to beat a shoot clock on a killer basketball court in one scene, forced to walk a treadmill in Cuervo Jones’ lair in another, and of course performing a variety of stunts in the face of threats both actual as well as CGI.
Let’s pause for a moment to talk about the CGI. Yeah, the technique came of age in the 80s (check out James Cameron’s 1989 film, THE ABYSS, for an example of it being used well) and was refined enough to be available for low budget projects in the 90s. At the time, it didn’t look all that great, and time has not been kind to some of the pictures that fully embraced the technology. ESCAPE FROM LA has a couple of set pieces (the tsunami surfing scene for one, Snake’s underwater journey to LA for another, and a few others) that just look . . . odd. Off. Uncanny in the best cases and dumb in the worst ones. Perhaps we have come far enough to smile at the quaintness of 90s CGI as it appears in this movie or Clive Barker’s LORD OF ILLUSIONS (1995) or Stephen Sommers’ entertaining aquatic-themed heist horror picture DEEP RISING (1998), or any of a countless number of flicks. It still looks bad. The reliance on it was as annoying as the reliance on 3D following the success of AVATAR (2009). It’s a gimmick and not a very good one if relied on like a crutch. I have no real numbers, but I feel confident saying a majority of the action-adventure and genre flicks in that decade over-used CGI to get away from the more expensive practical effects.
TLDL: I am not a fan of 1990s CGI. When it shows up, I tend to get a bit annoyed. ESCAPE FROM LA uses more than it needs to, and the result is a few scenes that launch me out of the story. They bug the hell out of me.
However, the rest of the movie is a riot. ESCAPE FROM LA is a fun little slice of comedy and satire, a mean little picture that kills off its large cast with glee, and leaves the lone hero badly in need of a horse. At least he manages to find a pack of cigarettes on his journey. The brand? American Spirit, of course.
The film is hard to pigeonhole. Is it a remake? Is it a sequel? Is it a separate universe from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK? It seems to be a bit of all three. There are references to New York and Snake’s involvement there, but those are devoid of too many details, so the flick might be a sequel to the actioner fans know and love or it might be a universe akin but removed from that one. There are lines of dialogue and a beat-by-beat plotting that maps directly to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, so it could almost be a remake. Of course, it could be a case of history repeating itself, too. This too seems to be a middle finger to Hollywood, which was at the time (and continues to be) driven by sequelitis, a need for more known properties that it can use to deliver a solid return on investment. So, in the end: is it a sequel, a remake, a look into a separate multiverse? Who cares? It’s a movie that tries to go its own way with familiar pieces. I expect it came into being along the same route that Tobe Hooper’s TOOLBOX MURDERS (2004) came into being: using the name of a known property to get money to make a picture Carpenter et. al. wanted to make. It’s a remake/sequel in name only, and that may well be the best satiric jab at The Industry the film executes.
In the final analysis, ESCAPE FROM LA is a fun flick. Aside from the satire it doesn’t really want to be much more than that: Fun. Take it on its own merits, leave any expectations at the door, and there will be some thrills here.
“Movie Mondays: Escape From LA” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and still image taken from IMDB.