Saturday, February 25, 2012
Escape From LA
John Carpenter, one of the most revered and popular of all genre filmmakers, a director who for a number of years could do no wrong. Delivering classic after classic working outside of the Hollywood system, utilising huge amounts of talent and skill, often with little money. Aside from Dario Argento, it's difficult to think of another director who has fallen so spectacularly from grace over the latter part of their career as John Carpenter has. After his last classic movie They Live in 1988, Carpenter's decline began with his big budget Memoirs of an Invisible Man. A critical and commercial flop, since then only In The Mouth Of Madness has seen him approaching a good film.
When it was announced Carpenter would reunite with Kurt Russell for a sequel to Escape from New York, it's fair to say my excitement level was through the roof. Written by Carpenter, Debra Hill and Russell himself after L.A's 1994 earthquake, the sequel would be Escape From LA. Upon it's release in 1996 the film was another critical and commercial disaster for Carpenter, so much so I couldn't bring myself to see it at the time. Now finally, sixteen years later I got hold of the US blu ray, hoping to be surprised by an underrated gem or at the very least have a good time.
A 9.6 rated Earthquake has devastated Los Angeles, making it an island and destroying much of it. The island becomes a deportation zone, effectively a prison colony for the citizens of America who don't fit in with the President's (Cliff Robertson) new moral America, where even the smallest of vices can see you banished to the hell of LA. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is called back into action by the US government, when the President's daughter (A.J. Langer) steals a black box, a dangerous weapon for terrorist Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface). Given the job of recovering the device, Plissken is understandably reluctant to become involved, he's "encouraged" to co-operate by being infected with a deadly virus, giving him ten hours to escape LA with the box and get back for the antidote.
Where to begin with Escape From LA? I'm afraid my hopes of being able to launch into a passionate defence of Carpenter's movie were quickly dashed. Escape is nothing more than a travesty of a film and to be honest I'm amazed it's reputation isn't lower than it is. Carpenter's intentions appear to have been purely and simply to attempt to satirise Los Angeles of the 90's, which would be fine except it all feels so heavy handed and unfortunately isn't very funny. Maybe in 1996 it would have come across as being a little more subtle but somehow I doubt it.
Okay so the satire doesn't work, what about the tough guy action? Surely Plissken can deliver the goods here? The life blood for a film like this are it's action scenes and again here the film is a huge let down, partially through some clearly terrible ideas of shoe horning sports related action into the film, partly through poor execution and partly down to some truly atrocious special effects, both CG and optical. The CG technology may have been young when this movie was made but this does not excuse just how bad these effects are, so much so it's impossible not to be taken out of the film. If the budget wasn't high enough to do these scenes to a competent enough level then surely the scenes could have just been re-written for something more realistic. This was previously always one of Carpenter's main strengths.
Everything that made Escape From New York such a landmark movie is missing from this sequel. The story itself is close enough to the original for it to almost be considered a remake, yet despite the larger than life attitude to every aspect of the production it all feels extremely flat. An interesting and exciting cast is largely wasted, given little to do in mostly glorified walk on parts and considering the line up includes Stacy Keach, Steve Buscemi, Bruce Campbell, Peter Fonda and Pam Grier it's a real waste. The biggest disappointment though is Kurt Russell himself, Plissken is one of the all time great film characters but in revisiting him, Russell is like a waxwork version of him. Although he still looks the part it really feels like his heart isn't in it and I'm not at all sure why.
Which brings me to John Carpenter himself. Escape From LA feels like him taking pot shots at Hollywood from within, all well and good except when your film is as bad as this one, you aren't really in a position to throw stones. Completely lacking in the strengths the original film showed, Escape From LA is a complete mess. In it's desire to satirise anything and everything it becomes ridiculously camp and trashy, and this combined with it's inherently cheap and tacky effects proves to be too much for the lazy writing, and the performance of Russell to overcome. I'm afraid John Carpenter and Kurt Russell have to shoulder the blame for this sorry mess, what could have been great, is simply terrible.