This-is-Dystopia!! Escape from L.A. @25
“Maybe I don’t need to know, so Fuck you, I'm going to Hollywood..!”
Welcome to the year 1996, Bill Clinton was still president, his Crime Bill wasn't all it was cracked up to be, the youth were slacking off, Sega Saturn was still holding its own against the venerable Sony PlayStation and Grunge music was still relevant.
August 9, 1996 - 15 years after the debut of the cult classic and of course one of my favorite films in general. In John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, S.D. “Snake” Plissken, a war veteran now outlaw, is coerced into rescuing the President of the United States from a self-contained maximum-security prison that was once considered the greatest city in the world: New York. The rules were simple; “once you go in, you can’t get out”. That was the tagline of the seminal cult flick, which was so good for Carpenter, that he would go on to ape his iconic classic in an almost paint by the number’s methodology. Simply put, Escape from LA as with Paramount's Another 48 Hours, was more like a reboot than an actual sequel and it left me as a die-hard fan of Snake Plissken’s exploits, with very mixed results. "Mixed" as in, one minute I like it, the other, I loathe it.
So, without being overly biased I will give my honest critique of why this sequel failed fans of the first "Escape" film. So here goes:
Written by John Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell, Escape from LA's plot somewhat mirrors the original. This time, it's Los Angeles that is now a self-contained Penal colony due to a major earthquake that was predicted by an American Presidential candidate who is a Christian theocrat, more like a zealot. (Played by Cliff Robertson.) Who denounced LA as a “City of Sin “and that, "Like the mighty hand of God, waters will rise up and separate this sinful, sinful city from our country".
"Adam" was soon elected as President for Life, thanks to an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, there is no such thing as term limits anymore now that he is the Prez for Life!
While assuming power, the President's new policies declared that anyone not conforming to the new "Moral American" laws he had established (banning such things as tobacco, alcoholic beverages, firearms, profanity, non-Christian beliefs, atheism, and non-marital sex) will be deported to Los Angeles Island or can choose repentance and death via electrocution as an alternative option. And just like the first film, there's a huge containment wall is built around Los Angeles with armed guards and watchtowers are stationed. Okay, the synopsis sounds great thus far so now what?
While those expunged to the island for not fitting the "status quo” are permanent exiles, Snake once again, has been “volunteered” to go inside a huge prison to rescue the President’s Daughter, Utopia. Well, assassinate her after retrieval of this doomsday MacGuffin called The Sword of Damocles, a device that when activated, can trigger satellites capable of sending any regional target, back to the dark ages via electromagnetic pulse.
Frustrated and feeling a disconnect after her sister’s suicide, Utopia (Ali Larter) has not only stolen the box, she hijacked a plane and gave it to Cuervo Jones, leader of a revolutionary army (and Che Guevara lookalike.) called The Shining Path, who threatens to use the device if his demands as in migrating back to the states, are not met, ensuing a showdown between the United States’ proposed strike and Jones’ invading forces.
Now, I’ll stop right here as there was not much originality from the trio of writers who shamelessly aped the first film but with new ideas; some very interesting and many that fell flat on its ass when it came to the overall execution. See Snake surf! See Snake Hang glide! See Snake shoot hoops?!? It’s like Plissken enjoying a getaway at an Amusement Park than going on a mission to retrieve the “Black Box of Doom"!
But seriously, this movie could have been fleshed out better had there been some serious consideration for a rewrite. I must agree with the late Gene Siskel when he said that the main antagonist Cuervo, played by George Caraface was too boring. Jones did not have the charisma or the enigmatic cool factor when compared to Isaac Hayes’ Duke of New York. And speaking of "the Duke", Isaac makes an uncredited cameo during the Basketball court scene. There was no true sense of Cuervo being that menacing, however, his shining moment came from his taunt at Snake, “You may have escaped from New York, but this is LA vato and this fucking city will kill you”!
And as much as I enjoyed the late Shirley Walker’s score for Batman The Animated Series, her contribution here, seemed out of place during a few scenes; one in particular, is during Snake’s "tour" through Sunset Blvd, there's this ominous score that took me out of the film. Prior to that was the overlapping songs from assorted Alternative bands and musicians such as Gravity Kills, Sugar Ray, or Tori Amos.To add salt on the wounds of my ears, was the final face off score between Snake and Cuervo which came off a bit too orchestrated after an explosion separates the two, we are treated to some overture that sounds like it came from a Batman! I really miss the collaboration between Carpenter and Howarth.
They had made magic with EFNY’s soundtrack sitting among other greats like Williams’ Empire Strikes Back and Horner’s Aliens as favorited scores from 80's Sci Fi cinema but then again, those were the 80's!Despite my critiques, I did love the remixed theme of Escape from New York and the submarine launch, but this is more contributed from Carpenter than Walker I’m afraid. Snake is an anti-hero not a superhero! This orchestral score does not match the tone of his dystopian world.
You would think after fifteen years from the first escape film, that there would have been a vast improvement regarding the SFX, but unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. The GCI utilized had a cheap and unfurnished look to them. From the USPF helicopter, the green screen motorcycle jump and especially that unconvincing surf scene that has snake riding the waves and in turn catching up to eddies speeding car. The submarine should not have received the CGI treatment as a Model would have worked just fine. And don’t get me started on how Pam Grier's casting was badly utilized.
I read a few articles from publications prior to seeing this film and from what I gathered, there's mention of legendary blaxploitation goddess Grier as an old acquaintance of Plissken and I immediate reaction was “She’s starring as a Black female counterpart of Snake Plissken and possibly a rival if not some love interest? Sold!" Or so I thought. Regardless of the inclusion of beautiful actresses such as Grier, and Valeria Gorlino, they were somewhat underrepresented. Gorlino had a small cameo as Taslima who a gunrunner for the Black Jihad was and previously deported to "Hell A" due to her religious beliefs. When meeting snake, they run afoul with a bunch of Jawa throwbacks, gets captured by the Surgeon General only to escape. After he hands her a borrowed pistol, declining her offer to be his girl, that's when her appearance should have ended, but noooooo, she immediately gets killed in some comical fashion! “Okay Valeria, your 10 minutes is up and we gotta keep it moving’. “Get those squibs ready!”
It’s almost reminiscent of EFNY’s Chock full of Nuts Girl, which at least was more terrifying when the Crazies grabbed her from below. And while speaking of "cameos" one of the best scenes was Bruce Campbell as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills where he gropes Taslima's breasts and says, "My god, they've real!" It’s unfortunate how Campbell's Surgeon General was more of a walk-on cameo than being another major villain within the movie. I thought he was great as always and I loved the jab at Hollywood’s obsession with plastic surgery.
Now where was i again with Pam Grier's casting? Oh yeah, here’s Hershe (Double entendre, get it?) is a transsexual leader of some underground syndicate and the minute Snake encounters her, he says; “Carjack Malone” followed by this ambiguous scene in question that left quite a few questioning Plissken’s sexuality especially after saying how Malone always packed a gun between his legs.
I was so let down by the premise of Hershe, Pam Grier should have played some female equivalent to Russell's Snake Plissken. She codified the Godmother of Blaxploitation films. While Kurt was starring in Disney movies, Pam was busy blowing fuckers' heads off with a shotgun! Hershe Palmer might as well have been another cameo, after the assault at Happy Kingdom, she and her merry band Saigon Shadow gets unceremoniously "Barbecued " by Cuervo Jones' rocket launcher.
Cliff Robertson was very convincing as the fanatical President who became this parody of Presidents George W. Bush due to his devout Christian beliefs and imposing his views into practice and even worse, an unhinged disconnected zealot Donald J Trump! I mean, this is brilliant foreshadowing!
Reminiscent of the first film, Snake once again, has been forced to fight for his life within a gladiatorial area but this time there’s no need for spiked bats or garbage can lid shields. Snake instead of further demonstrating his survival skills when kicking ass, is offered to throw a basketball in the hoops at the sound of a shot clock. And he does succeed at it. Kurt managed to land the ball into the hoop from a lengthy distance! It's too bad JC and Kurt didn’t utilize Snake's full potential like, fighting his way out of the arena.
The fight scenes between Plissken and Jones was also disappointing. Tussling, biting and to top it off, Snake spins Jones around to clock him one final time. And to think, I bitched about TDKR’s fight scene between Batman and Bane. Russell would have benefitted from more training during his close quarter combat moves. The clash between Snake and Cuervo should have been the payoff, but it was a complete clusterfuck and wait, there’s Shirley’s Batman soundtrack again!!
Snake in his usual misanthrope manner, pulls a slight of hand resulting in the uncertain fates of everyone! Afterwards, Plissken lights a drag, then Carpenter cleverly breaks the fourth wall by having our beloved Antihero stare at the viewer in contempt followed by "Welcome to the Human race." As much of a letdown EFLA was, that ending was "turnt up" compared to Escape from New York! There was a suggested dourer ending that would eliminate Snake's usage of the hologram, after switching the real remote-control unit with Eddie's. Snake would ultimately be shot and killed as a result. I'm glad Carpenter didn't go through this one as not only would it kill off one of my favorite Antiheroes, but it has been already used, see They Live.
Snake may be around slithering somewhere however, due to poor reception from both box office returns and negative critical reception, LA killed all possibilities for a sequel i.e. the suggested "Escape from Earth " idea where the film's events would take place after Snake Plissken shut down all of the electricity on Earth, and the plot would follow Snake as he sets out to rescue a NASA scientist from a violent gang, and stop the gang and the President of the United States from discovering the whereabouts of the NASA scientist's creation, an electromagnetic proof space vehicle and use the space vehicle to get off to Earth and go to a colony on Mars. Then there was this "Escape from Mars" proposal, which was manifested into 2001's John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. (Also starring Pam Grier.)
As a fan of the EFNY, it had upset me to no end mainly, because had Carpenter acknowledged Escape from LA's shortcomings, there may have been more of a conservative effort to improve upon the second sequel, like adding in the templates that what we loved about the first Escape movie. That is of course, had it come to fruition. As of now, we're stuck with a spiritual reboot of the cult classic.
There are those who have somewhat dismissed my sentiments of EFLA because I of my expectations for it to somewhat mirror the original, in tone. But that’s the contrary I thought the storyline for John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken Chronicles comic was not only, one of the best interpretations of the iconic antihero, but it added the wit and dark tone from the overall concept now THAT should have been made into a sequel as opposed to what we were given.Now, despite my critiques, there were quite a few things and ideas that I did like about EFLA.
Kurt Russell did a solid reprisal of the beloved Antihero, and at the time of filming after 15 years, aged gracefully and what’s even more impressive is how he was able to fit into those same camouflaged fatigues from the 1981 classic. Some of his most memorable moments were the self-referential lines, “I get it. You figure that you inject that shit into me, and under the threat of death, I'll do whatever you say... just like in New York."
Sometime afterwards, he fires his rifle at Commander Malloy and Brazen (played by Stacy Keach and Michelle Forbes respectively.) without hesitation without realizing that his first clip was loaded with blanks. That's one of the many pranks Malloy plays on Plissken but of course, he gets even: "I shut down the third world, you win they lose. I shut down America, they win, you lose. The more things change, the more they stay the same." I can identify with Plissken’s cynicism as the current culture wars, have escalated to the point that there are no heroes here. On one side, we have the ignorant low brow trash who deny climate change, refuse to comply with Covid 19 safety regulations, hostile towards those different from them and devoid of human compassion. On the other, the annoying Pseudo Justice Warrior Thought Police, who throw up false signs of virtue signaling when “cancelling” every minor blurb someone has made even if it was not meant to offend or something said over 20 years ago. Most of this is from clout chasing especially when it comes to social media. They are for immigration, that’s if no one is migrating into their neighborhood.
“Escape from L.A. is better than the first movie. Ten times better. It's got more to it. It's more mature. It's got a lot more to it. I think some people didn't like it because they felt it was a remake, not a sequel... I suppose it's the old question of whether you like Rio Bravo or El Dorado better? They're essentially the same movie. They both had their strengths and weaknesses. I don't know–you never know why a movie's going to make it or not. People didn't want to see Escape that time, but they really didn't want to see The Thing... You just wait. You've got to give me a little while. People will say, you know, what was wrong with me?”-John Carpenter
As far as action scenes go, Snake had more than his share, whether it’s the Motorcycle chase, gunning down a few of Cuervo's goons or a shootout when making his way into the sewers. Oh, of course blasting a Neo Nazi, is always a good thing. 😉
Peter Fonda's cameos as the surfer dude Pipeline, were brief, but memorable especially during the cheesy Tsunami scene with Snake doing a "Hang Ten" accompanied by some cool surf rock that should have been added to the Soundtrack CD. Instead, we got fucking Professional Widow!
To be fair, some of the music did not gel with the atmosphere of the sequel, others such as Rob Zombie’s The One and Escape from the Prison Planet were among the exception.
The submersible scene was another highlight and despite the bad CGI, I laughed at how Plissken made his way through a sunken Universal Studios while avoiding "Jaws". Good score, great in-joke! Other clever references, was when Snake, gliding over Happy Kingdom says to Fast Eddie, "Hey, Eddie, is that what I think it is..?" then Eddie responds by saying that the theme park changed owners from time to time" insinuating that Happy Kingdom was originally Disneyland!
Again, Kurt Russell was the best saving grace here! His role as Snake, is a return to form and improving upon one of the greatest antiheros of cinema. And as far as the film’s legacy is concerned, Escape from LA has inspired some filmmakers and game developers to the extent of implementing some sort of homage. For example, during the opening sequence of the popular PlayStation Videogame, Metal Gear Solid, the protagonist Solid Snake (inspired by Snake Plissken) is piloting a one-man submarine craft enroute to Shadow Moses Island. Another is during the finale of The Last Jedi, where Luke Skywalker is seen projecting a force “hologram” in front of Kylo Ren’s Imperial army as a ruse.
Escape from LA is far from the sequel it should have been and its one of those rare instances of a movie, I like and loathe at the same time. With retread scenarios, misplaced soundtracks, bad CGI, underused characters, and a grave mishandling of a 70’s pop culture icon, EFLA was an example when you have too many writers and bad decisions, due to studio interference. That said, there is plenty of fun to be had when you accept it as just a self-satire and foreshadowing what is yet to come.