Friday August 9, 1996
John Carpenter's Escape From L.A." brilliantly imagines a Dante-esque vision of the City of Angels 17 years from now as a hell on Earth, all but destroyed--and made an island--by a 9.6 earthquake in 1998.
Amid endless vistas of ruins--think Berlin at the end of World War II--the Chinese Theater, the Capitol Records building, a wing of the Beverly Hills Hotel and other damaged landmarks still stand to let us know where we are. Inspired, meticulously detailed production design in turn serves as a background for a provocative high-octane action thriller that reunites Carpenter with producer Debra Hill and Kurt Russell, who jointly wrote this spectacular, superior sequel to their rousing 1981 "Escape From New York," which, by the way, was set in 1997.
As an island, L.A. has become the ideal dumping ground not only for criminals but anyone deemed not conforming to the rigid dictates of the fascist regime of the U.S. President for Life (Cliff Robertson), a leader of the extreme religious right voted into power when he predicted that an Armageddon would in fact destroy our Sodom and Gomorrah by the sea.
But now Robertson's unhappy daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) has stolen her father's Black Box with its mysterious power to destroy the universe and has linked up with Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), a Che Guevara look-alike described as a member of Peru's Shining Path who is now the much-feared undisputed ruler of what's left of L.A. What to do but maneuver that legendary one-eyed, leather-clad gunfighter Snake Plissken (Russell) into retrieving that box from the ferociously dangerous urban jungle L.A. has become. After all, it was Snake who 15 years earlier had managed to retrieve our kidnapped president from a Manhattan that had been turned into a fortress-prison for society's worst miscreants.
At the top of his game, Carpenter and his cohorts boldly tap into the twin strains of paranoia gripping the present-day American society, suggesting that we face one or the other of two of our worst nightmares coming true. They suggest that liberals fear a fascistic Moral Majority-style takeover--it's not for nothing that Robertson's president has moved the government to Lynchburg, Va.--whereas conservatives fear a Latino invasion from the South of the Border. Snake, therefore, becomes the man in the middle with whom most of us identify.
Carpenter sucks us into the tension created by these opposing forces so gradually we're not aware of it because he's created so many occasions for laughter. He pokes fun at mystifyingly complex future technology and disarmingly pokes fun at the idea that he's brought back Snake, that parody of swaggering macho, in the first place in what is so baldly a reworking of the earlier picture.
In 2013 L.A., Snake, who has arrived via mini-sub and ordered to "put ashore at Cahuenga Pass," encounters numerous colorful characters. None is funnier than Peter Fonda as a hippie surfer waiting for that aftershock-driven Really Big Wave; none more colorful than a perfectly cast Steve Buscemi as Map to the Stars Eddie, the eternal conniver, the man to see for anything and everything, who switches loyalties between Snake and the ferocious Cuervo with the speed of lightning.
Vaguely identified in the first film as a war hero turned robber for reasons unclear, Snake gets a key assist from an old pal, then called Carjack but now the just-as-tough yet glamorous and sexy transsexual Hershe (pronounced Hershey), played by Pam Grier. He also gets help from Valeria Golino's Taslima, who explains that her only crime is that she was a Muslim in South Dakota. Sending off Snake on his journey is Stacy Keach's smart, ruthless military aide to Robertson.
Golino's remark is but one of many that allow us to perceive, allegorically, in the L.A. of the future, the city of the present, filled with "people without hope, without a country." Nearing the end of his odyssey Snake has good reason to observe that "the more things change the more they remain the same."
Carpenter, cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe, production designer Lawrence G. Paull and the usual huge roster of special-effects experts have done a superlative job of making a scary future come alive. Snake's mission takes place at night, at once more economical than shooting in daylight and more appropriate to the film's dark vision of the future. Much light comes from fires set in oil drums, which is what's happening every night in downtown's skid row area, and Paull carefully interweaves actual locations with sets, including a standing small-town set at Universal, dressed as a ruined theme park--and allowing a funny dig at such Disney operations. Carpenter himself composed, with Shirley Walker, the film's tear-it-up score.
Buscemi, Fonda, Robertson, Grier and many others get to make vivid impressions, but of course it's Russell who must carry this swiftly paced picture. As rugged as ever and attractively weathered, he does so with ease. As Snake he resists the pitfall of self-parody, bringing a bemused seen-it-all weariness to a barrage of nonstop action. Less surly than he was 15 years ago, he leaves us feeling that we wouldn't mind seeing him yet again.
John Carpenter's Escape From L.A., 1996. R, for violence and some language. A Paramount presentation in association with Rysher Entertainment. Director John Carpenter. Producers Debra Hill, Kurt Russell. Screenplay by Carpenter, Hill & Russell from characters created by Carpenter and Nick Castle. Cinematographer Garry B. Kibbe. Editor Edward A. Warschilka. Costumes Robin Michel Bush. Music Shirley Walker & Carpenter. Production designer Lawrence G. Paull. Art director Bruce Crone. Set decorator Kathe Klopp. Visual effects by Buena Vista Visual Effects. Action miniatures by Stirber Visual Network Inc. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken. Stacy Keach as Malloy. Steve Buscemi as Map to the Stars Eddie. Peter Fonda as Pipeline. George Corraface as Cuervo Jones. Cliff Robertson as The President.