Retro-review: New on Blu-ray/DVD from the Shout Factory!!
ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1997)
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by John Carpenter, Debra Hill, Kurt Russell
Starring Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Valeria Golino, Stacy Keach, Pam Grier, Bruce Campbell, Georges Corraface, Michelle Forbes, A.J. Langer, Peter Jason, Paul Bartel, Breckin Meyer, Robert Carradine, Leland Orser, Jordan Baker, Ina Romeo, Isaac Hayes, Al Leong, Jeff Imada
It had been a while since I saw ESCAPE FROM LA and I honestly didn’t remember much of it before I popped the Shout Factory’s new Blu-ray into the ol’ player. I was hoping that time would have made the film better in some way, since I do remember disliking the long-awaited sequel to Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Carpenter’s 1981 action thriller was gritty, gritty, expertly paced, and finely storied tale that made Snake Plissken one of the baddest antiheroes of the early eighties. Unfortunately, I remembered the follow-up to be a cartoon farce by comparison.
The President’s daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) is a little asshole. She’s stolen vital controls to a satellite weapon called “The Sword of Damocles” and taken them to her revolutionary boyfriend Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface) and fled to the new quarantine zone of Los Angeles, which, after the San Andreas fault broke, separated Los Angeles from the rest of the country. Now Los Angeles is an island apart from the United States surrounded by a border of military police and considered a prison island by the President (Cliff Robertson) and his military. After numerous attempts to retrieve the weapon failed, the government has run out of options and sends in the one man who has done this type of thing before, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell).
On paper and writing that synopsis out, given today’s current events, Carpenter and Co. seems to have been quite prolific in terms of the details involving a revolt from America, the secession and revolution of a population, the rise of a lawless zone, and many other recent world events. Carpenter also spoofs the Star Wars project, religious politicians, rebellious teens, and the militarization of the police force in ways that feel like he was looking in a crystal ball and also writing what was in the moment with extreme clarity. These broad and anti-establishment sentiments are bound to give ESCAPE FROM LA a bit of a boost to the film’s cult status for some.
The one problem is that, basically, this is a remake of ESCAPE FROM NY when looked at from a distance. Instead of the President himself being rescued by our hero Snake, it’s his daughter and the McGuffin weapon. Again, Snake is given 24 hours to get the McGuffin back or else, this time, he dies from a virus he was injected with (this plot point was originally supposed to be in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but was scrapped when it seemed too ludicrous—that ought to tell you something). Almost beat for beat, the story is basically the same and sorry, but if I have to shoot between a gritty, grimy classic and a squeaky clean remake, even if it’s from the same crew, I’m choosing the original every day and twice on Tuesday.
Instead of the grimy and dark streets of NEW YORK, LA is still filmed at night, but it is lit brightly, shot clearly, artificially decorated, and looks washed of all of that grease and grit that made the original so badass in the first place. Apologists for ESCAPE FROM LA say the difference in atmospheric tone is intentional, given that LA is a brighter place, more polished and put together at face value. The tone is logically flawed and different as well, I think Carpenter feels that, unlike NEW YORK–which was a lawless warzone where everyone lived in fear and terror of what horror lays around the next block, LA is instead, a Utopia and a place he might not want to escape from (which is sadly represented by Carpenter’s sellout years where he made big budget flops like GHOSTS OF MARS, MEMOIRS OF THE INVISIBLE MAN, and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED). This theme is hinted at in NEW YORK, but in LA you’re slapped in the face with it as people are constantly trying to convince Snake to simply drop his mission and live among the rebels. Sure, it is an interesting theme that the zone considered an untamed land is the real free zone and the America outside is the one trapped, but LA is still depicted as a warzone lead by warlords with guns, the streets are full of rubble and rot, and the land is pretty much destroyed. So while the ideology might be attractive to those who disapprove of the government, the living is shit and it’s not convincing me or Snake that it’s any better on the inside as it is the rest of the USA. The way the rubble is intricately placed and brightly lit makes everything feel fake and unnatural (again, adjectives I would use to describe LA), but still it doesn’t make for a very cool setting for an action movie. In conclusion, the production values of ESCAPE FROM LA and thoughts behind it kind of suck when you really think about it.
While NY felt like a naturally evolving quest full of twists and turns as Snake explored the vast and dangerous landscape, LA feels much more like a “Yellow Brick Road” walk where one action sequence simply leads to another with more of a “let’s throw this shit against Snake and see if it sticks” writing style in a land without character, only one “event” occurring after another. The action is so extremely random and cartoonish that one would wonder why a no-nonsense character like Snake is taking part in it at all. Looking very much like it was filmed on a soundstage rather than in actual streets (because it was filmed on the Universal Studios Lot), Snake basically walks straight down the middle of the road to get to his destination. There was stealth involved in NY, but in LA, Snake is just walking out in the open. At the beginning of the film, Snake slinks though a very small forest in order to get to the main road and to wherever the hell he has to go. I think the real Snake would have stuck to those forests all the way there instead of just trouncing down the road like he’s got a Tin Man and Toto at his side and going on little side-quests. Because there’s such a staged way this film is set, everything looks like it is filmed flatly, going in one direction, and playing out like a video game (probably because they wanted to make a video game out of it).
The action itself is what stands out at the biggest offense. Surfing, hang gliding, basketball tournaments? Do these sound like activities you’d like to see Plissken take part in? What no hackey-sacking or yoga? I understand Carpenter might have been trying to turn the image of the action hero on its ear, but c’mon. Seeing Plissken doing all of these ridiculous feats feels like the guy from the KEY & PEELE GREMLINS 2 skit was involved in the writing. If you want to utilize the water, have Plissken stealthily swim his way through rocky shark filled terrain. If you want to send him flying through the air, don’t put him on a hang glider, have him jump from a helicopter onto one, not have to be taught how to fly one (and if they have helicopters and hang gliders, are they really trapped on that island?). Instead of a basketball game, how about a fight to the death on a basketball court Thunderdome style and the only one who wins is the one who keeps his head and doesn’t get it tossed in the hoop. Seeing Plissken basically have to do something we see at the halftime Lakers show adds nothing and only detracts from his badass hero status.
So I keep coming back to this word gritty and action. Those are the things I think of when I think of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. I understand Carpenter was going for a different tone, but I think he went too far away from the original and ended up in another genre all together. He made this film a politically charged action farce as if he was drinking too much of the Hollywood Kool-Aid while filming. It’s one thing to evolve your story to tell a different tale, but when you make a sequel, if you change things too much, you have to ask yourself, maybe I should just make this a completely different movie. What if Coppola would have decided to make GODFATHER II as a slapstick comedy with gangsters slapping each other around like the Three Stooges? What if Cameron would have made ALIENS a musical giving the Aliens their own big dance number? In both of those films, the tone and even genre might have changed a bit, but it still adhered to the core elements. In ESCAPE FROM LA, the only thing consistent is Snake, but even he is done in a cartoonish way and he’s placed in an environment that makes him look ridiculous over and over again.
Kurt Russell is good here, but again, it just feels like he is on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE playing Snake Plissken, rather than playing the character itself. I’m not asking for a deep character analysis here, but so many times, Plissken is shoved aside in his own movie to marvel at the next intricately constructed set-piece or cameo. Buscemi isn’t even trying here as Map to the Stars Eddie and it’s widely documented that he only took the role to help pay for his own movie TREES LOUNGE. Peter Jason, Paul Bartel, Robert Carradine, Peter Fonda, and others show up for useless cameos. Pam Grier is shamefully underutilized, and they gave her a man’s voice for god’s sake. Valeria Golino is set up as a love interest but is in and out as if she has a meter running. Bruce Campbell is given a meaty role as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, but he too is only in it for about five minutes. All of these great character actors are given such small roles while boring roles like Cuervo Jones is given the center stage as the villain. I understand again, Carpenter is trying to subvert expectations with the introduction of Golino only to kill her off and de-sexifying the sultry Pam Grier, but subverting expectations only work when the results are clever. Here they occur as stunts, and then the story moves on to the next challenge for Snake to easily master.
I guess after this long rant above, you’ll understand that this is not my favorite movie. It’s trying to be clever and smart. It’s trying to be funny. It’s trying to be witty. But what it is not trying to be is a sequel to one of the coolest low budget action films of the early eighties. I get it. While ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK as down and dirty in the streets, ESCAPE FROM LA is the big time blockbuster version of it. Both films reflect the attitudes of each city. But there have been gritty LA stories made and this one surely doesn’t take credence to any of those films. Snake is an iconic character, but that doesn’t mean he works in every setting. Just as Batman works best at night in Gotham, if you set him in the daytime in New Orleans he just looks like another Mardi Gras weirdo. Maybe if there would have been some kind of progression between New York and LA as Snake moves across America the shift might have been an easier swallow. A middle movie that takes place in the often-referenced Cleveland or maybe my own home turf of Chicago would have been nice, then the leap from New York to LA might not have been such a jarring tonal shift. Carpenter attests that ESCAPE FROM LA was before its time, but bad comedic timing, horrid CG, a nonsensical script, bad lighting, bad set design, and poor story choices are not something that ages well. Sure there are themes some might recognize and applaud in this rebellious day and age, but a good idea wrapped in a shit sandwich is still a shit sandwich.
The Shout Factory Blu-ray of ESCAPE FROM LA comes with a shitload of extras including; a New 4K film scan from the original negative, a new “A Little Bit Off Beat” interview with Stacy Keach, a new “Beverly Hills Workshed” audio interview with Bruce Campbell, a new “Part of the Family” interview with Peter Jason, a new “Miss A Shot, Get A Shot” interview with George Corraface, a new “One Eye Is Better Than None” interview with special effects artist Jim McPherson, a new “The Renderman” interview with visual effects artist David Jones, theatrical trailer, TV spots, & still gallery. That’s a lot of bells and whistles for such a stinker. This is for those Carpenter completists and likers of bad cinema. The rest of you should be picking up ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK instead for a better version of what Carpenter and Co are trying to do here.