Film Torments: Escape from L.A. (1996)
NOVEMBER is de-facto Action Month at Film Torments because we say so. Here’s Dan’s take on a pristine chunk of Kurt Russell’s iron chin.
The 90s (and 00s) hit John Carpenter hard. Like, really hard. Though the auteur had seldom achieved the box office success of his peers, his previous films like Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing had entered the cinematic lexicon as masterpieces of their genre. The fringe success of 1988’s They Live was probably Carpenter’s last testament of cultural resonance; ever since, he’s struggled to regain his once-enormous sway in the industry, at least to genre pieces if nothing else. They Live was almost 30 years ago, and since then Carpenter has managed to craft only one enduring slice of signature genius.
Escape from L.A. may well have been conceived as his last gasp of greatness before mediocrity truly set in. A late sequel to the hugely influential Escape from New York (Hideo Kojima is still writing love letters), L.A. takes the original and butchers it in the best way possible. Out are the surreal cityscapes, ice-cold atmosphere and eerie dread of a shattered Manhattan; in are surfer dudes, basketball gauntlets and hang-gliders storming Disneyland. It’s the equivalent of George Miller taking Mad Max and making Beyond Thunderdome – the same thing, but brasher, campier and ten times as giggle-inducing.
Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) and his heavenly mullet returns to be the grizzly badass fall-guy, and he has to infiltrate an isolated city. That’s about where the similarities with New York stop. Carpenter doesn’t even attempt to mask how identical the plots of both films are – he knows exactly what the audience wants and by God he’s going to deliver. Escape from L.A. is Carpenter at his manic, crowd-pleasing best, taking the frantic pace from Big Trouble in Little China, the gleeful self-awareness of They Live and adding a dose of batshit insanity, creating a potent cocktail of pop-culture nothingness.
The ultimate meaninglessness of the film is predicated by the hilariously bad special effects that open the film, as skyscrapers shatter to herald the fall of Los Angeles in the distant future of 2000. This montage culminates in the ascension a theocratic President (Cliff Robertson), who promptly bends the country to his morality, banning tobacco, atheism and extra-marital sex in the process. Allusions are made to the L.A. riots of 1992, and the police state of L.A.’s President eerily mirrors the National Guard during that time, but that’s where the social commentary begins and, indeed, ends.
Carpenter isn’t here to wax political or make you think: He’s here to have a great fucking time making a goofy piece of crap. (And he’s all out of crap.) L.A. substitutes the darkness of New York for camp resplendence, revelling in a plethora of inventive set-pieces and outlandish characters with wilder fashion senses. My George Miller comparison earlier wasn’t accidental – this is John Carpenter’s attempt to make a Mad Max movie, with Kurt Russell being a far more engaging Max than Mel Gibson (or even Tom Hardy) ever could. The only grit found here is the etched-in stubble on Russell’s chin.
The cast list is a roll call of esteemed cult players and character actors, ranging from Peter Fonda to Pam Grier to Steve Buscemi to Stacy Keach to Bruce fucking Campbell. All are on fine form, with Buscemi especially digging his teeth into his slimy tour guide, Maps to the Stars Eddie, and Campbell essentially inspiring Bioshock’s Dr. Steinman with his insane plastic surgeon, but it’s Kurt Russell who steals the show. His opening line, that sets the tone for the entire film, is, “Call me Snake.” At the risk of going giddy at the knees in squirming fanboy joy, he’s probably the most badass motherfucker to ever grace the screen.
What’s also amazing is how Carpenter chooses to offset every possible moment of peril. My favourite is the scene where ostensible villain Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface) delivers an ultimatum to the President while Snake is handcuffed to an active treadmill. He’s right there, in the background, walking on a treadmill. The camera doesn’t focus on him, but he’s always there. It’s a bizarre and hilarious moment that perfectly undercuts the threat at hand, and subtly lets the audience know that everybody’s here for a good old time.
Escape from L.A. proves that you can be both incredibly dumb and incredibly awesome. There are three prime examples. The first is when Snake overcomes the basketball deathmatch equivalent of a beep test; the second sees Snake escape a tidal wave by magically learning to surf with the help of Peter Fonda, as he hangs ten on gushing sewage, and the third is when he joins a baritone Pam Grier in a hang-glider offensive on the ruins of Disneyland, which is described as having the firepower of “two armies”, while triumphant music roars in the background.
Why does this succeed where the cartoonish hi-jinks of, for example, Die Another Day fail? It’s the charisma behind the camera and the sheer visual invention involved. We’re not dreading what comes round every corner like in New York; in L.A., we’re desperate to find out what colourful, extravagant character lies waiting for Snake to outwit (or outgun). That’s what L.A. has that other campy schlock epics lack: Character. It bleeds from every frame, from every Plissken grunt, from every lavishly absurd set-piece. It even finds time to have an excellently choreographed fist-fight between Snake and Cuervo, because John Carpenter knows how to direct a goddamn fist-fight. (R.I.P., Roddy Piper.)
So why, if I love this film so much, is it a Torment? Because it is, if we really break it down, terrible. As a remake/sequel to Escape from New York, it destroys the mystique of the original by its mere existence. The effects are awful, the script is ravishingly stupid and the action scenes are even dumber. The plot breaks into pieces when you think about it for more than a second, and the smouldering untouchability of Snake Plissken destroys what little tension remains.
It’s schlocky, cheesy and cartoonish, yes, but here’s the thing: It parades its own awfulness like a badge of honour, flaunting its kitsch in the audience’s face and daring it – daring it – to hate it. It’s that devil-may-care attitude – embodied by Russell’s performance – that permeates the film as a whole and almost renders it invulnerable to criticism. Almost.
It’s the most badass pantomime ever, which makes it such a shame that it managed to recoup only half of its $50 million budget. It’s the result of a lunatic auteur making the very most out of the assets at his disposal, and it remains Carpenter’s only true blockbuster in the truest sense of the word. (And the director’s most expensive at that.) While it may not have the tightly-scripted genius of The Thing, the edge of Precinct 13 or the social commentary of They Live – or indeed the tension of its predecessor – it’s a cavalier throwback to an era of unflappable heroes, cardboard villains and inventive scenarios and goes down in history as one of the director’s all-time best.
Just before I sign off, here’s a hilarious side-note. Upon viewing the original script for Escape from L.A. in 1985, John Carpenter described it as “too light… too campy.” In 2015: “Escape from L.A. is better than the first movie. Ten times better.” That’s worth the price of admission in itself.