John Carpenter had big-studio backing after the sleeper success of his independent thriller, Halloween, yet his follow-up film, Escape from New York, had the same cheap, low-budget look of some cheesy B-movie made by a film-school geek--which, essentially, it was. The movie was pure silliness: Could any audience in 1981 actually imagine a world so bleak that the tony Park Avenue penthouses, pricey Fifth Avenue shops, and costly infrastructure of New York City would be converted into a maximum-security prison by 1997? The brazen stupidity of the film indicated either a complete lack of respect for its audience or a brilliantly disguised sense of humor. Whichever the filmmakers originally intended, Escape from New York has acquired something of a cult status, giving it life on video that it was properly denied in theatrical release.
Escape from New York was not only a watershed for Carpenter, but for his star, Kurt Russell, as well. The movie was Russell's first real stab at leading-man status after years of juvenile parts in inane Disney comedies. Russell since has earned box-office credibility, pulling in good if not spectacular numbers for three of his last five films: Backdraft, Stargate, and Tombstone. But other than some misplaced sense of duty to Carpenter--who was giving Russell film roles when nobody else seemed willing to--what could possibly account for his decision to co-write, co-produce, and star in Escape from L.A., an idiotic sequel to an equally questionable source?
I wish I were more confident that Carpenter and company intended Escape from L.A. to be a campy comedy, some kind of send-up to spaghetti Westerns, Mad Max films, and those weird, wild Leon Isaac Kennedy penitentiary movies. That they knew full well this was supposed to be camp might explain some of the bizarre, mind-numbing events that transpire, but it couldn't justify one important thing: why the movie just ain't funny.
Sequels often get a bad rap for being short on originality, but Escape from L.A. defies the odds. It's not just similar to Escape from New York, it's the exact same movie! Everything including the underlit sets and the laughable performances seems calculated to elicit either a snicker or a sneer, although it's never certain which. (They should have given a part to that shrill sourpuss, Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter's ex-wife and former favorite leading lady. It would almost be worth witnessing the end of the world just to see what a mushroom cloud would do to that perm of hers.)
Notorious outlaw Snake Plisken (Russell) is once again offered a deal by the corrupt prison authorities: Rescue a package that landed on the prison island of Los Angeles, and get a full pardon in return. The catch is that Snake has been infected with a deadly virus, and won't get the antidote until the mission is successfully completed. Snake then wanders through the maggoty underbelly that is the future of urban living in his quest to find the improbably named revolutionary, Cuervo Jones, a lunatic Che Guevera wannabe and self-appointed ruler of the island. On the way, Snake survives a deadly game of basketball and the deaths of his acquaintances. (When Valeria Golino is shot dead seconds after singing the praises of prison life, I don't know how she and Russell control the temptation to break out into a chorus of "A Little Fall of Rain" from Les Miserables.)
Still, Carpenter is nothing if not scrappy, and a few times the satire really clicks: the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills harvesting fresh body parts for his army of undead plastic surgery addicts, or Peter Fonda surfing a tsunami, or the weaselly Steve Buscemi playing a bottom-feeding former agent. Carpenter might not have a clue as to why these scenes work--he doesn't seem to have a firm grasp on plot development--but he lucks into some moments that are memorable, in part, for their sheer, unrepentant mindlessness.
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More often than not, though, Escape from L.A. merely seems insincere in its bleak vision of the future. Snake is both selfish and stupid; every authority figure is not just evil, but a hypocrite to boot; and even the American people are naive enough that they would amend the Constitution in order to elect a fanatic televangelist as "President for Life." Cynicism is fine, but Carpenter's suspicions about the future are so over-the-top as to undercut any message--assuming he even has one.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Escape from L.A.--other than how not to make a movie--it might be one expressed by cartoonist and pacifist James Thurber. Thurber once said he didn't know who would win the third world war, but that the fourth war would be fought with sticks and stones. That pithy, grim prediction seems to be at the heart of this movie: Better to return to the Dark Ages and start civilization anew than live in a world run by Pat Buchanan. It's hard to argue with that kind of logic, even considering the source.
--Arnold Wayne Jones
Escape from L.A. Paramount. Kurt Russell, Stacy Keach, Cliff Robertson. Written by John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Kurt Russell. Directed by John Carpenter. Now showing.