Snake is back in John Carpenter’s maligned follow-up to his own cult hit. Is it unjustly panned?
Who made it?: John Carpenter (Director/Co-Writer), Debra Hill, Kurt Russell (Co-Writers/Co-Producers), Paramount Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Valeria Golino, Stacy Keach, Pam Grier, Bruce Campbell.
Tagline: “Plan Your Escape.”
IMDb rating: 5.5/10.
Arriving fifteen years after the low-budget cult classic Escape from New York, 1996’s Escape from L.A. is the very definition of fun, trashy entertainment. See, whereas the original 1981 movie was a bleak, gritty post-apocalyptic tale, this follow-up is a campy, deliriously over-the-top actioner, and the result is better than most critics are willing to admit. Unfortunately, the movie entered cinemas to little fanfare, and earned only $25 million at the box office, a disastrous amount considering its $50 million budget. Even though Escape from L.A. is far from perfect, it’s enjoyable enough, and action fans should find it worth at least a rental.
In the year 2000, a gigantic earthquake desecrates Los Angeles, severing it from the mainland and reducing it to an island. The President of the United States (Cliff Robertson) declares that L.A. is no longer part of the country, turning it into a deportation region for the country’s least savoury citizens. Hence, L.A. becomes a lawless zone populated by murderers, psychos and criminals, and a one-way trip to the island is equal to a death sentence. In the year 2013, the President’s daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), steals a remote control unit for a doomsday device, and absconds to L.A. to hand the device over to a guerrilla leader. Criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is captured by the government, but offered a full pardon if he agrees to enter Los Angeles and retrieve the device. Although he refuses the assignment, he’s forced to do it – he has been injected with a virus that will kill him in ten hours, and he will only be given the antidote if he completes the mission.
The screenplay by Russell, Debra Hill, and director John Carpenter essentially rehashes Escape from New York, following an almost identical narrative trajectory, right down to Snake having his cooperation forced by being injected with a virus (as opposed to a bomb, like in the original) that will kill him in a matter of hours. The difference is, this time the action takes place in the City of Angels. Luckily, Carpenter takes full advantage of the change of scenery. Escape from L.A. takes satirical jabs against L.A.’s entertainment industry, and sets its sights on plastic surgery too. Moreover, the fact that this is a typical copycat sequel seems to be a sly act of satire in itself. Well played, Mr. Carpenter. Luckily, the film is full of killer dialogue, with Plissken again having a field day with one-liners (after being told that the United States no longer permits smoking, drinking, drugs, sex, guns, foul language or red meat, Plissken sarcastically quips “Land of the free…“). Meanwhile, the ending is absolutely kick ass, as it’s unexpected and shocking in all the right ways.
Whereas Escape from New York was a low-budget movie, Escape from L.A. was produced for $50 million, no small chunk of change in 1996. It’s therefore bewildering that the visual effects are so astonishingly inept, often going beyond cheesy to become outright embarrassing. The CGI is obvious and lacking in detail, not to mention the integration into the live-action elements is completely slipshod. Production values are otherwise strong, however, with expansive set design which makes the most of the Los Angeles setting. Indeed, Carpenter gives us a tour of L.A.’s ruins, showing changed geography and the desecration of recognisable sites. The action set-pieces are frequently solid here, too. As good as it was, Escape from New York does suffer from pacing difficulties, a flaw that Carpenter himself has even acknowledged. Escape from L.A. rectifies that flaw, as Carpenter fills the movie with big, colourful action sequences. It’s a lot more fun than its predecessor as a result, but it does lack the enthralling atmosphere of New York. Also worth mentioning is the terrific music. White Zombie contributed a song to the soundtrack, and there are some enjoyable compositions courtesy of Carpenter, too. The main theme is very catchy indeed.
Russell has publically stated that, out of all the characters he has played during his career, Snake Plissken is his favourite. Luckily, he slips back into the role with ease here. Russell is again a muscular badass who accepts no nonsense, speaks in a raspy Clint Eastwood-like voice, and shows complete disrespect for authority. If anything, the fact that Russell is fifteen years older here is a benefit, as he looks even more badass. He’s a huge asset to the film, and the reason why Escape from L.A. is as entertaining as it is. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is pretty packed, though none of the actors actually appear for very long. Most notable is Steve Buscemi, who’s as strange as ever playing the role of “Map to the Stars” Eddie, while Bruce Campbell shows up for a single scene as a big-shot plastic surgeon. It’s unfortunate that Campbell was not given more to do, but he does get a few laughs. Also present here are Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, Stacy Keach, and several others, but this is really Russell’s show.
Taken as a film, Escape from L.A. is pretty bad, littered with cheesy effects and driven by a corny screenplay. Taken as pure beer-and-pizza entertainment, though, the movie is good enough. It’s not even a classic in its genre, but it is a fun watch with its low-rent CGI and deliriously enjoyable action. Reportedly, Carpenter and Russell had planned to create a third Snake Plissken adventure, Escape from Earth, after completing Escape from L.A., but the film’s staggeringly low box office numbers unfortunately spelt death to that plan. It would have been very interesting to see further adventures of Plissken, especially due to the way this film closes, but at least we will always have the first two movies to enjoy. Taken in the right mindset, Escape from L.A. is a hoot-and-a-half.
Snake missed out on a damn fine career in the NBA.
- At the beginning of the film, Kurt Russell wears his costume from the original film, which still fit after 15 years.
- Russell practised playing basketball between scenes as he wanted to make all of his shots legitimately in the basketball scene later on. He made all of those shots purely on his own talent, even the full-court one.
- Steve Buscemi took the part in this film to help fund his directorial debut, Trees Lounge.
- Snake’s line to Malloy near the end of the movie, “Got a smoke?” is the same line that Napoleon Wilson says repeatedly in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).