Monday, June 24, 2013

John Carpenter: Escape from LA

Despite my somewhat muted praise of Escape from New York — one of the most beloved of Carpenter’s films — there’s no denying the elements that fervent fans of the cult classic point to as reasons why it’s one of the best action films of the ‘80s. The primary reason being of course Kurt Russell’s performance as Snake Plissken, so it’s no surprise that there were always plans to bring the character back. However, time kept passing and opportunities kept getting stunted, and it wasn’t until 1996 that Carpenter and Russell would re-team (along with Carpenter’s long-time writing/producing partner Debra Hill) for Escape from LA, the long-awaited sequel fans of the original had been pining for. Alas, the film is not a sequel as much as a re-introduction to the character, and it suffers because of this. Even though I wasn’t the hugest fan of the original, it would have been interesting to see a true sequel to the film. Instead, the film plays exactly like Escape from New York both in terms of narrative and in entertainment value. I know that may be sacrilegious to suggest that LA is just as good as New York, but aside from the film’s huge budget (50 million, which is the largest Carpenter’s ever received for a film by a significant margin), there is really nothing different about the film. What’s true about New York is true for LA: they’re both flawed films that are worth seeing for a couple of standout setpieces, some memorably wacky side characters, the great musical score, and for Russell’s performance.

Once again Plissken is tasked with saving the world — a responsibility he can take or leave depending on what’s in it for him. Even more detached and cynical than he was in New York, Plissken is out more for self-preservation than any kind of duty to his fellow man. The year is 2013, and the task this time ‘round takes him on a journey through Los Angeles, which due to a massive earthquake is now an “Island of the Damned.” A Peruvian revolutionary, Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), kidnaps the president’s daughter, Utopia (yeah, that’s really her name), and brainwashes her into giving him a doomsday super weapon known as the “Sword of Damocles.” The weapon, in the wrong hands, can shut down electricity around the globe, causing the world to go back to some kind of Dark Age.

Enter Plissken. Snake is being taken to Los Angeles for numerous crimes. Upon his arrival he meets up with Commander Malloy (Stacey Keach) and the President of the United States (Cliff Roberston), an outspoken Christian that not only has relocated the nation’s capital from Washington D.C. to his hometown in Virginia, but he’s also fostered a dystopian America wherein those citizens that choose to partake in “moral crimes” such as smoking, drinking, eating red meat, swearing, or having non-marital sex will find themselves being deported to Los Angeles island or, should they choose the quicker alternative, have the “opportunity” to opt for death by electrocution.

The carrot Malloy and the President dangle in front of Plissken is, once again, a pardon. Obviously, Snake has every reason to be wary of this offer based on his previous experience. Of course he’ll take the job. And of course Snake will come upon some information and get himself in a pickle that will make him re-valuate his plan of action. Really, though, the entire narrative is structured as one long nostalgia trip designed to remind us of the better movie (only this time with bigger, but cheesier looking, effects) as Plissken walks or surfs or glides around the island meting out justice, meeting an array of idiosyncratic characters along the way.

Just as he did with They Live, Carpenter firmly plants his tongue in his cheek as he peppers the film with political commentary. He’s not as subtle here as he is in something like Prince of Darkness, but then I don’t think anything with a character like Snake Plissken is intended to be subtle. The whole “moral America” dystopia is his condemnation of the Bush #1 years just as his “obey” and “sleep” slogans of They Live were a commentary on Reagan's America. And for that one should commend Carpenter for trying to do something more with a big-budget action picture. But even the filmmaker admits that he and Russell got a little carried away with nostalgia while they were writing the script; because of this, the film is deflatinigly repetitive. Just as a scene really gets going and seems to be placing Plissken in something new and interesting, a creeping sense of déjà vu kicks in, and our minds immediately go to Escape from New York rather than focusing on the film in front of us.

So, yeah, they’re both essentially the same film, and it kind of feels like a waste of a sequel (even though this is really more of a reintroduction, a pseudo sequel if you will, designed not to alienate a potentially younger audience), specifically a waste of Kurt Russell’s reprisal of one of the most iconic characters in all of ‘80s action cinema. I liked the same elements from both films; however, the edge does go to New York for its grimier aesthetic and the impressive fete of Carpenter constructing his vision on such a small budget. In LA, it looks as though Carpenter gets distracted by the opportunity to use CGI effects here (to be exact, I’m thinking of the surfing scene) that really don't age well. There’s also a sense that a lot of the déjà vu doesn’t work because the new characters or setpieces just aren’t as interesting — they’re just (badly) dolled up renditions of better executed moments that relied on ingenuity rather than the philosophy that throwing a bunch of money around will make these elements more interesting.

If you’re going to get caught up in nostalgia as Carpenter admits he and Russell did, then you have to make sure that the setpieces and characters are disguised in a way that feel fresh even though they’re retreads. Keach’s Malloy is just the Lee Van Cleef character from the first film; Steve Buscemi, Pam Grier, and Bruce Campbell pop up to remind us that there are still wacky characters in a dystopian world; Jones is just a poor attempt at another “Duke,” the Isaac Hayes character; and, finally, in one of the film’s most truly bizarre scenes, Jones has Plissken fight for his life — only instead of a to-the-death wrestling match in front of a bloodthirsty crowd a la what the Duke makes Plissken go through, we get a exhibition. Kurt Russell running up and down a caged-in basketball court, shooting funny looking jumpers and lay-ins (complete with slo-mo last second full court heave) is something to see, my friends. It’s a surreal and hilarious scene. I can only imagine that Carpenter and Russell knew how ridiculous this whole thing would look, and that they’re being self-aware and just having some fun here. Still, the film is fun and harmless, and it’s good to see Plissken back on the screen even if the story or setpieces aren’t nearly strong or interesting enough to support the return of such an iconic character.

Escape from LA was the first of three films where Carpenter would begin to deconstruct the western genre (and really he started this much earlier, going as far back as Assault on Precinct 13, but probably most overtly with They Live) by mixing in action, sci-fi and horror elements. Just like Carpenter had his “Apocalypse trilogy” in the ‘80s/’90s, so too does he have somewhat of a “Western trilogy” with Escape from LA, Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars. There’s a shared thematic and aesthetic philosophy to all three of those films. A lot of westerns (and certainly the westerns Carpenter admired) are about people at the edge of civilization. Heroes are loners, usually, that are sometimes marginalized but always people that adhere to a code of honor that is rather simplistic: justice for all. This usually manifests itself in the taking-down of a corrupt entity exploiting a small town or a small group of people. These characters may not be heroic, but they are honorable.

Again, we can see the seeds for this with the Nana character in They Live, but it wouldn’t be until Plissken’s return in Escape from LA and the follow-up films Vampires (probably his most blatant attempt at making a western) and Ghosts of Mars, that we begin to see Carpenter finally getting the opportunity to make the westerns that he always so badly wanted to make, but that the marketplace never really allowed him to pursue (Carpenter constantly says that the timing was never right for him to make a western because audiences didn’t like westerns anymore). Escape from LA was a big-time bomb at the box-office (really, though, Carpenter’s films have never been huge success at the box-office), barely recouping half of its 50 million dollar budget. Again, I'm never one to believe that box-office success means a film is good or bad, but there's something of a trend here: the film's where Carpenter gets a lot of money to play with for a bigger studio, these usually aren't his best movies. He's more at home with the smaller productions and more unassuming genre films.

Carpenter’s follow-up would be an adaptation of John Steakley’s Vampire$ — a heavily stylized (Carpenter would call it his homage to Peckinpah) neo-western under the guise of a horror film that is fueled by one helluva great (and quite politically incorrect) lead performance from James Woods.


  1. For me, the big missing piece of the puzzle for this film is the absence of Nick Castle as co-screenwriter. His contributions to ESCAPE FROM NY are sorely missed in the sequel as he gave the former film some much needed satirical, dark humor.

    Another problem with ESCAPE FROM LA is that it tries to be a remake/sequel hybrid that is hard to pull off, but worked well with EVIL DEAD II and DESPERADO. Not so much here. I get the feeling that the studio leaned on Carpenter and co. to make this more like a remake and re-introduce the character figuring that a mainstream audience would have no idea who Snake was. That compromises the film as you rightly point out.

    You could point by point why this film is a shadow of its previous incarnation. I do enjoy some parts of it and have softened my stance on it over time, but it still is flaw-riddled effort from Carpenter.

    1. Good call on the absence of Castle, J.D. as I agree that the sequel just isn't darkly comic enough (seriously, that basketball scene just kills me with how absurd it is). I also like your comparisons to films like Evil Dead II and Desperado -- I had never thought of it that way before, but it really does feel like an attempt to make the same movie with a bigger budget (or the same movie with an understanding that a much larger audience will see it this time). I think because I halfheartedly love NY I was able to be a lot kinder to LA...but I can certainly understand why a hardcore fan of the original would absolutely hate this one.

  2. "Carpenter gets distracted by the opportunity to use CGI effects here (to be exact, I’m thinking of the surfing scene) that really don't age well." I remember groaning at that scene when I saw the film in the theater; it was terribly done to begin with. I agree that ESCAPE FROM L.A. is harmless fun but that it would have been much more interesting if the story (and the character of Snake) had progressed since the first film. It's funny you mention that this film takes a poke at the Bush Sr. years, given that Russell is a big-time right wing kind of guy. I saw an interview with Carpenter in which he stated that he and Russell are polar opposites politically, but that they love working together (which is obvious).

    1. Thanks for the comment, Michael! That CGI is pretty awful, and I'm not one to jump on something because it looks silly compared to today's technology, but it's just so obvious with the surfing scene and others that the CGI was so lazily and shoddily executed. I'm currently re-watching the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and I'm amazed at how some of the effects in those films still hold up, cheesiness and all. So it's not just that the idea of the CGI or the look of it is cheesy or antiquated, it's just that it reeks of a director doing it out of what seems like nothing more than an obligation to spend all of that money on something.

      I never knew that about Carpenter and Russell in regards to their politics. I think that when people are polar opposites like that they probably argue a lot and bring out the best in one another, which is maybe why their collaborations in the '80s were so fruitful.