Flashback Film Review: Escape From L.A.

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It took the world to end for me to finally appreciate John Carpenter’s 1996 film Escape From L.A.  Having loved the original, Escape From New York, for years, the sequel has always come across to me as campy, stupid, and downright unwatchable.  We typically part ways around the time Snake (Kurt Russell) and Peter Fonda’s Pipeline surf down the L.A. River.  If by some chance I make it past that point, the hang-gliding, machine gun air attack on Communist terrorist heavy Cuervo Jones and his sympathizers in a mocked-up Disneyland—which for all intents and purposes should be one of the coolest notions to ever be conceived in an action film—is not in the same vein of gritty action that takes the wheel in Escape From New York. Instead, it plays as campy as the 1966 Batman TV series, which I love, but I don’t it want in my Snake Plissken flicks.

Anyway, in the year 2000, a devastating earthquake at the San Andreas Fault breaks Los Angeles off the western U.S. coast, but this plot doesn’t capitalize on all that beachfront real-estate like Lex Luthor in 1978’s Superman:  The Movie. In John Carpenter’s cynical world, it makes a really great prison, complete with police wearing surgical face-masks and holding cameras next to their guns, for deportees, sinners, and yes, Muslims, guarded by a wall—sound familiar? This is all along the western seaboard, in an America lead by a fundamentalist right-wing Christian with bad hair who has given himself a lifetime term of office.  Hello? 

Meanwhile, on the other end of the radical political spectrum, the President—ironically played by Cliff Robertson who portrayed John F. Kennedy in 1963’s PT-109, coincidentally directed by Leslie Martinson who also directed the 1966 “Batman” movie starring Adam West— finds out his daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) is the new girlfriend of Communist party faction leader Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface). We know he’s Communist because he’s dressed like Che Gueverra, clearly. Utopia has stolen a device for him that’s capable of sending a satellite generated electromagnetic pulse that will shut down all electronic devices in the world, sending the earth into a new dark age. Obviously, because that’s the future that Communists want.  

And since Snake did such a great job working for America 15 years ago rescuing the President from the New York island prison which simply held plain ol’ murderers, thieves, and drug addicts, Uncle Sam is calling for his help once again. Giving him 10 hours to track down Utopia and Cuervo Jones and retrieve the control unit, thus saving the United States and prolonging its questionable place in the global theatre lest he dies from the flu-like virus Plutoxin 7 subtly transferred to him on his arrival to Los Angeles.  “Designer virus, Plissken.  Wave of the future.”  Ringing any bells yet?

Either John Carpenter is some kind of modern Confucius or he’s secretly a writer for The Simpsons, because he pretty much nailed the themes of Spring 2020.  Or has Shout Factory, who’s had the 4K restored blu-ray release of this film planned for six months or better, tapped into some mystic juju that perfectly planted this thing into the mailboxes of everyone who pre-ordered in the final weeks of May of this year. Or even, do fundamental evils just simply run that deep because, looking back at 1996, the year this film was released, democrat President Bill Clinton was up for re-election against Republican candidate Bob Dole, and would go on to do a second term. So unless John Carpenter thought Clinton might not have a shot, those salad days of the mid-90s weren’t really anything for a left-winger to be too upset about.  But party-lines aren’t really Carpenter’s style because the left gets as bad rap in this flick as the right, and what we learn this film is about is the same message that was so blatantly, and arguably more tastefully put across in Escape From New York, and that is anti-establishment. If you look up anti-establishment in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Snake Plissken.

Carpenter makes both sides of this moral, political argument look criminal.  The President even states he doesn’t care if his daughter—whose name is Utopia—lives or dies, he just wants the power she’s stolen from him restored.  And while Jones is already a criminal, Carpenter goes to extra lengths to make him look stupid because what’s he going to do on a mainland without electricity that’s any different than an island prison with barely any electricity to begin with?  And the only side that begins to make any sense is the extreme middle, if there ever was such a thing, which is all the things we love about Snake Plissken. That being his apathy for hard party lines, his wit, and most of all his “whatever it takes to survive” in any situation know-how. All Snake wants to do is whatever the hell he wants, which is truly, arguably, a version of an American Dream.

To make this film even more prescient, Snake eventually discovers the existence of a resistance group lead by transgendered Hershe, played by Pam Grier. They rally a crew to take on Jones and his gigantic crew of lackeys, culminating in the hang-gliding Batman meets G.I. Joe scale attack in Happy Kingdom by the Sea.  And regarding Happy Kingdom by the Sea’s parallel to Disneyland, Steve Buscemi’s Map to the Stars Eddie points directly at the connection with the dialogue, “That thing in Paris nearly killed ‘em,” referring to the company’s troubled Euro Disney park established in 1992.

The final moments of the film undo everything that’s been set up for the past 90-something minutes as Snake discovers the Plutoxin 7 virus never gets worse than the flu. In a classic switcheroo, Snake ends up with the “ordinary remote-control unit”—that by the way, functions very similarly to a smartphone but with tiny CDs inside it—and launches the EMP anyway. He disables all electronics on earth, but with a striking bit of dialogue as he lights an “American Spirit” cigarette that tells us we’re living in his truly anti-establishment and literally free world now, “Welcome to the human race.”

Even if you can’t get past the camp or what your idea of an Escape From New York sequel should be, Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken is the reason to show up, not to mention the rest of the amazing character actors who are given plenty to do, including Stacy Keach, Pam Grier, Bruce Campbell, Michelle Forbes, Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, and Valeria Golino.  Also, Carpenter, along with Shirley Walker—composer for Batman: The Animated Series—give us a rousing remix version of the defensibly most memorable, and my personal favourite Carpenter theme from Escape From New York.

Yeah, it’s pretty much the same movie as its predecessor.  Yeah, the special effects look like cut-scenes from an original PlayStation game.  Yeah, there’s unnecessary surfing.  But the perfect timing of the home video release of this film with the context of an America on fire, and a world not far behind it, perhaps its prescient message finally has a place where the lines between camp fiction and reality are disturbingly blurry, suddenly offering a glimpse of a future where a hero like Snake Plissken makes more sense than it should. 

Rating: 6/10

(Blu-ray release from Shout Factory.)

Words by Lucas Hardwick

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