Saturday, February 25, 2012

Escape From LA

Kurt Russell Plissken poster

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.

kurt Russell Plissken

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.

Kurt Russell Plissken

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.

Kurt Russell Plissken

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.

Kurt Russell Plissken poster


Wes Moynihan said...

Excellent post Mart, I enjoyed this one... Firstly I haven't seen LA - it got such universally bad notices when it came out in '96, I skipped it and in the years since have never felt any desire to see it - even though it regurlarly plays on TV (much more so than the original). I liked the way You took a chance on the film years later to see if it made better sense - sometimes when you see a problematic film like this out of time, divorced from the hype and the critical hatchet jobs, it can play out totally different - something like Mad Max 3 Beyond Thunderdome or Alien 3 - films that seem to get better as time goes on. Still somethings can never be fixed (the jury is still out on Hellraiser II). Is that Peter Fonda riding the surf, above ? What was Carpenter thinking ?

A hero never dies said...

Thanks Wes, you're spot on, that's exactly what I was thinking. I've still never seen Beyond Thunderdome fr some reason. As for Alien 3 I think I was one of the four people worldwide who actually liked it at the time, and I completely concur regarding Hellbound.

To answer your final questions, yes that is Peter Fonda and I don't have a clue!

robotGEEK said...

I am right there with you on this one. I love the the original to death, and to me is considered a landmark film in both Carpenters career and cinema in general. I remember being so let down by this one at the theater that I never gave it another viewing until recently. I couldn't even finish it. It was lame in almost every aspect, with the effects being the most obvious and then just some of the sequences in general, like the surfing sequence. Dear lord! What were they thinking???

Great review, I couldn't have said it any better myself.

Hans A. said...

I saw this one during its original theatrical run. While I don't think it's terrible, it is definitely a weak JC film. Escape from LA is essentially a remake of Escape from NY. Where the original was subtle camp humor and dark exploitation, Escape from LA is overt and cheap humor. That basketball scene, for example, is ridiculous. Not in a good way.

It's interesting to read your thoughts on this one AHND, and I hope you have a good one.

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