Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Escape from L.A. (1996)

Title: Escape from L.A. (1996)

Director: John Carpenter

Cast: Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Valeria Golino, Pamela Grier, Bruce Campbell, A.J. Langer


Escape from L.A. is a strange kind of film. When I first heard the news that a sequel to John Carpenter's  Escape from New York (1981) was being made I was excited to see the resulting film because not only was John Carpenter back behind the directors chair, but Kurt Russell was still going to play Snake Plissken! That’s really all I needed to know. Sadly, when I went to the theater to see it, I came out being disappointed. Where was all the darkness? Where was that terrifying post- apocalyptic world that I loved from the first film? Why were characters trying to be funny? Why was everything so silly? Why? Why? Why? Well, many years have passed since my initial disappointment with Escape from L.A. I’ve grown some, matured some. I had a chance to recently re-watch Escape from L.A. How do I see this film now?

Carpenter and Russell on the set of Escape from L.A.

Well, I honestly can’t bring myself to hate it. I see why I didn’t like it when it was first released, but I’ve grown to accept this film for what it is. It’s pure unadulterated campy fun. Funny thing is that a script was written for this film way back in 1985, by a guy called Coleman Luck, but Carpenter thought the script was too light and campy. What? X-squeeze me? Baking Powder? That’s exactly what Escape from L.A. turned out to be anyways! Ultra campy and ultra light; at least when compared to the first film which was so dark and brooding. Escape from New York was a film that took itself very seriously. Yeah it’s a science fiction film, but it was a decidedly serious one. Not many laughs or  jokes in sight. In contrast Escape from L.A. is colorful, filled with one joke after the another, and very, very campy. This movie is obviously making fun of itself. And to tell you the truth, I like that about it because it’s obviously what Carpenter and Russell were going for. So you’ll be better of just erasing your expectations for this film. If you haven’t seen this one yet, you have to go in expecting a different film than Escape from New York.

What makes Escape from L.A. so different? It’s all about the tone of the film, the look of it. While Escape from New York felt like a horror movie at times with it’s darkness and freaky looking characters, Escape from L.A. is actually well lit and colorful,  filled with comic book heroes, villains and one liners galore. Take for example the character called ‘The Surgeon General of Beverly Hills’ the one played by Bruce Campbell. This character feels like a comic book villain, like something out of an episode of the old Batman television show. He’s a surgeon general who has performed so much surgery on himself and on his patients, that they have disfigured their faces! He likes chopping up good looking people to use for his surgeries. This is a prime example of the kind of totally over the top characters you will find on this film. They aren’t particularly scary or intimidating like the villains on the first film, but they are entertaining none the less. And the comic book characters don't stop there my friends! Pamela Grier plays a transvestite who used to be Snake Plissken’s partner in crime! Steve Buscemi plays a double crossing tourist guide! Peter Fonda plays a surfer who likes to ride Tsunami tidal waves! And so on. But even though this film is filled with funny, entertaining characters such as the ones I’ve mentioned, this doesn’t make Escape from L.A. a bad film in book, just a different kind of film than its predecessor. 

Bruce Campbell's 'Surgeon General of Beverly Hills'

Both Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. are decidedly anti-establishment films. They both have this cynical view of the government; in these films, the government is not to be trusted. There are terrorist attacks aimed at the government on both films. On the first one they hijack and crash Air Force One; forcing The President of the United States to fall into the hands of the freaks inside Manhattan. On this second one, the president’s own daughter is the one that rebels against the government and decides to live with the leader of the criminals; a guy called ‘Cuervo Jones’. And here’s what I liked about this movie. While it does criticize fascist forms of government, it also criticizes rebellious leaders who instigate their followers towards committing violent acts. So it doesn’t side with anyone. On this film, both sides are wrong. The film pleads for a new beginning, it’s asking governments to forget their old grudges and start from scratch. Snake himself says it in one scene: “I shut down the third world, you win, they loose. I shut down America, they win, you loose. The more things change, the more they stay the same” This is one of the ideas presented in the film that I truly liked. The idea that both sides should just call it quits and bring on the peace, bring on the freedom. Again, this last bit demonstrates how much of Kurt Russell’s Libertarian views are on this film. After all, he wrote a lot of it himself along with John Carpenter and Debra Hill. These are three life long buddies writing a movie they would find amusing, which makes this film a labor of love. This is probably why the film has a more laid back, ‘were having fun here’ vibe to it.

That being said, the film does have some faults going for it. The visual effects for example are freaking horrendous, I mean this was a 50 million dollar movie, one would think that better effects could have been afforded. There’s this painfully bad effects sequence in which Snake drives this mini-submarine through the underwater ruins of L.A….wow, there’s some bad CGI for you. I mean, granted this was early CGI, but even for 1996, these effects where half assed in my book. The scene where Snake Plissken rides a tsunami wave on a surfboard with Peter Fonda, while campy and kind of cool in a way (it’s all about that Hippy attitude!) the scene just comes off as one bad special effect. The scenes with Snake and crew flying these gliders, wow, you could just tell those things weren’t really flying; the list just goes on and on. So expect lots of cheesy effects on this show.

But don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate this movie. I quite enjoyed it actually. I mean yeah, I loved the first one a whole lot more. It’s just darker and scarier; it’s got more of an edge to it. This second one is tongue in cheek every step of the way. Watching Escape from L.A. feels like watching a cheap Italian Rip Off like 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983), but with a bigger budget. Actually, Escape from L.A. has a lot of similarities with 2019: After the Fall of New York, so in a way, this is Carpenter's pay back for all those cheap Escape from New York rip offs that the Italians made. Ultimately, I love both Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. for different reasons. And for all the tonal differences between both films, they still have many similarities. No matter where, Snake Plissken will always be Snake Plissken, you can tell Russell has lots of love for this character. Plissken is what kept me watching. The opening and closing segments of the films are extremely similar as well. And here’s where we get to the best part of the film, the ending. Not gonna spoil it don’t worry, but I will tell you that it is the best thing about the movie. Russell himself came up with it and I applaud him for it, it encapsulates everything Snake Plissken is in terms of attitude. That idea that maybe the world would be better off if we simply started again,  from scratch, screw the way things are, let’s try something new! Welcome to the human race my friends, welcome to the human race.

Rating 3 ½ out of 5  


Anonymous said...

I unabashedly love this movie. The comparison I've always made is that New York is like a Connery Bond movie and LA is a Moore Bond movie. LA is much more tongue in cheek, but no less fun.

Unknown said...

I agree, you can't hate this film because Carpenter and co.'s hearts are in the right place. It's just that when you invariably compare to ESCAPE FROM NY, it just ain't as good. I think the problem I have with it is that Carpenter and Russell wanted to do a sequel/remake hybrid and it fails on both counts, thereby mystifying newbies to this universe who have no idea what's going on and pissing off hardcore Plissken fans expecting more badass adventures a la EFNY.

The right way to do a remake/sequel hybrid is something along the lines of EVIL DEAD II or DESPERADO - those films, IMO, got it right.

To be fair, it has been years since I've seen ESCAPE FROM LA so I would be curious to come out from a different perspective. I certainly agree with you on the film's faults. The CGI is atrocious and the bad guy is so ineffectual. He just doesn't hold a candle to the Duke from EFNY. But then, how you can top Isaac Hayes?

That being said, the best thing about EFLA is its message - the notion of beginning again, throwing everything out and starting over. I also thought the ending was the best part of the film as it echoed the ending of EFNY.

Excellent review!

Franco Macabro said...

@thevideovacuum: great comparison, and I totally agree.

@J.D.: True, it does feel like a remake, the book ends of the film are extremely similar. They bring in Plissken, they make him an offer he can't refuse, they send him in, then when he comes back, he plays a trick on them. The differences between both films rest in the middle of the film, the wasteland prison just didnt feel as dark.

Agree about Evil Dead II and Desperado! Good remakes/sequels.

Agree about Cuervo Jones, they needed a more imposing villain, perhaps Benicio del Toro would have done a more threatening performance. Isaac Hayes scared the shit out of me when I saw EFNY the first time as a kid.

Agree, the best part is the message and that ending, it just grabs you and almost makes you forget the rest of the film you just saw. You almost forget all the mishaps.

Thanks for reading and commenting J.D.

Jack Thursby said...

I think the thing fans forget is that EFNY was satirical comment on how crime-ridden 80s New York was at the time.

EFLA, by comparison, is a satirical comment on how vain and self obsessed LA was in the mid 90s. That's why it's so over-the-top and silly compare to the original. He's comparing two very different cities, the films shouldn't feel the same.

I've got to admit that I too was quite dismissive of EFLA at the time but it's grown on me alot. The bit where Snake starts attacking Cuervo's train of cars is great. Leaping from one car to another. And that basketball sequence with Russell doing a full court lob is fantastic (and I think he did it for real!).

Franco Macabro said...

@Jack: This is true Jack, I read that Russell was practicing his basketball to film those scenes, he wanted to do them himself. That last shot where he shoots that basketball from across the court, I thought it was an fx, but I read somewhere that he did all the basketball scenes for real, so thats pretty cool, that last shot seemed pretty amazing.

The whole basketball scene is one of the scenes that I felt was a bit out of place in the film, I mean, here's Plissken, the leather clad bad ass...playing basketball? It's something I'd never thought I'd see.

This is true what your saying about both movies commenting on different cities and lifestyles. When Escape from New York was made, New York was coming out of that whole 70's crimewave, this crimewave inspired many movies, amongst them Deathwish; which was a film in which the common man has to take a stand against all that crime.

But Escape from L.A. is a whole other animal, aside from talking about other political issues, as you say, it also comments on the whole L.A. lifestyle.

The whole thing with the plastic surgeon is one of those scenes that let's you know exactly what this film is partially talking about, the self/beauty/youth obsessed, shallow, lifestyle.

That scene reminded me of a similar one in Terry Gilliam's Brazil, where we meet Sam Lowry's surgery obsessed mother. She too has her face disfigured after so much plastic surgery. When people can't accept their own age, it can get ugly.

Good observations Jack!

Unknown said...

I certainly agree that Carpenter and co. were making satirical jabs at LA culture and on top of that I think that they were also poking fun at how ridiculous and over the top big budget action films had become. However, fans of Snake Plissken don't want to see him throwing basketballs around or surfing - they want him to see him be a badass and those things really hurt his image, I felt. They trivialized his character. And yet, Carpenter wanted it both ways by having moments were Snake comes across as his old self, esp. the ending and I think that's the film biggest problem - tonally it's all over the place. Is it a satire? Is it a serious sci-fi film with a message? The film doesn't know what it wants to be and tries to be everything at once and feels scattered as a result. I think the only reason I treat it so harshly is that it had a lot to live up to. I do enjoy it and it certainly isn't the worse film Carpenter ever made but it is a big letdown after the awesomeness that is EFNY.

Jack Thursby said...

Agreed, EFNY had a very definite, single vision in terms of tone and story while EFLA is far more scattershot. Aiming at too many targets and only hitting some.

I think Carpenter's strength in the 70s/80s was making very simple straightforward movies and the more he moved into the 90s the more he struggled to fit into the evolving cinema landscape. I mean put this movie alongside The Rock - which came out the same year - EFLA is, much as I love it, a far more clunky, old-fashioned movie.

Franco Macabro said...

J.D: The basketball sequence is the one that really brought things down a bit for me, it's like the last thing you'd expect for Snake Plissken to be doing. I see why Carpenter did it, Basketball was extremely popular during those days...but come on! It went a bit too far.

I would say this is more of a satire, it's always toungue in cheek, you can almost see Carpenter and Russell winking at the audience.

@Jack Thursby: Strange how Carpenter was cutting edge and edgy when Escape from New York appeared but old fashioned or old school when Escape from L.A. came, its interesting how things work out! I think he shouldnt have waited so long to make it.

I would have loved for L.A. to make more money, Carpenter and Rusell had another sequel planned called ESCAPE FROM EARTH that sounds so freaking cool: zombie apocalypse causes Snake to have to escape the planet...on a space ship!

I'd buy that for a dollar! Sounds awesome, I hope somebody has the guts to make that movie at some point.

Jack Thursby said...

Yeah, another Snake movie with Russell would have been cool. I'm really not looking forward to the inevitable remake.

If you're interested I think they made a Snake Plisken comic in 2003 called The Snake Plisken Chronicles where he teams up with Captain Ron! I'm trying to track down a copy at the moment but it's ultra rare, the company that made it went bust not long after it came out.

Franco Macabro said...

@Jack: I'm curious for that remake, Gerard Butler was mentioned as a possible Snake Plissken, but nothing came of it. If it makes money, then maybe we might see ESCAPE FROM EARTH at some point.

ESCAPE FROM EARTH was going to be made into an anime, but that never came to be either, apparently the death of Debra Hill (long time collaborator with Carpenter) put a stop on many of these projects, for the time being hopefully. I'm sure Snake will return in one form or another in the coming years.

I actually have the first issue for The Snake Plissken Chronicles, which was a mini-series that lasted four issues. It was from a comic book company called Crossgen, this company actually put out a good bunch of comics, unfortunately it never really cought on with the public and died out in 2004. But I have that issue, it's one of my prized possessions!

Marvel comics also put out another Snake Plissken comic called The Adventures of Snake Plissken in 1997, but it wasnt an ongoing series, it was only a one shot. I'd like to get my hands on that one!

Unknown said...

Wasn't a Snake Plissken video game also in the works at some point? Now that would've been cool! But I've heard that the main character of METAL GEAR is based on Snake.

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah, the video game was going to be called Snake Plissken's Escape and it was going to be from the guys at Namco. But it also fell through. You can find some artwork for it on the net anyways.

This is true J.D. the creator of the Metal Gear games has said that the name of the main character in the Metal Gear games is 'Solid Snake' as a homage to Plissken.

RVChris said...

I love Escape from New but still like Escape from L.A. I like how its a spoof but I can see why this turned off many fans of the first movie. I always saw the basketball scene as a parody of LA's obsession with the Lakers. And I agree that the CGI in EFLA is pretty bad. I wish we got another Escape movie by Carpeneter and Russell back in the 80s. Oh and I love Bruce Campbell's short role in this movie!

Franco Macabro said...

Agree RV, no matter how cheesy it gets, I still find lots to enjoy on Escape from L.A. Yeah, with the baseball thing, I guess when the time came to write this film Carpenter thought: what distinguishes L.A.? Immediately a couple of things must have popped up: plastic surgery, and basketball.


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