Monday, April 14, 2014

Movie Monday: Escape From L.A.

We've escaped from New York, now it's time to Escape From L.A.!

I, like many people from my generation, love the films of John Carpenter. From Assault on Precinct 13 to Halloween to The Fog to Escape From New York to The Thing to Christine to Starman to Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter spent a decade on an amazing hot streak, crafting a string of classics that are still being watched and analyzed to this day.

He hit a bit of a slow patch in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and his style of tough, no-nonsense filmmaking seemed at the odds with the nascent era of blockbuster film production. But I can remember being excited that he and his most frequent collaborator, Kurt Russell, were returning for their first sequel, Escape From L.A.!

Then, of course, I saw it, and was thoroughly disappointed. Aside from its many faults, the thing that bothered me the most about it was just lame. And coming from someone as tough and funny and inventive as Carpenter, that to me seemed like the worst sin of all.

Flash forward twenty years (wow, really?), and I've been re-watching a lot of Carpenter's films, and getting impressed all over again. And I'm not the only one: Hollywood has been churning out remakes or prequels of his most renowned films (Rob Zombie's Halloween, the 2011 Thing), so I thought it might be worthwhile to go back and check out Escape From L.A. again to see if it seems different than I how I remembered it.

Set in 2013(!), this new vision of the future features a U.S. President-for-life (Cliff Robertson), a theocrat who has banished all the citizens who do not conform to his more moral version of America to Los Angeles, which has been turned into an island after a massive earthquake flooded a large chunk of Southern California.

Of course, this leads to a bit of trouble, like when revolutionary Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface) has seduced the Preisdent's daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) and brainwashed her into stealing the codes to a super weapon called a Sword of Damocles, which via satellites can knock out all the electronic devices in the country. This cannot stand of course, so the government hires the one man who can sneak into Los Angeles and get Utopia out: Snake Plissken!

Snake is injected with a fatal toxin that he will only get the cure for if he completes his mission, ensuring he'll go along. After what seems like an interminable set up where we go over all the rules and gadgets Snake will be dealing with (delivered by Stacy Keach--swinging for the fences--and Michelle Forbes), Snake uses a private submarine to get onto the island where he runs into an aging hippie named Pipeline (Peter Fonda, of course) and a squirrely shyster named Eddie, who sells "Maps to the Stars" (Steve Buscemi).

Snake makes his first attempt at Cuervo and Utopia during a quasi-parade designed to rile up the rabble:

This first attempt (shot at an astonishingly relaxed face for an action sequence) fails, so Snake searches for an old friend, who has since become a transsexual named Hershe Las Palmas played by Pam Grier. With the help of Hershe's gang and some hang gliders, Snake makes another try at Cuervo and tries to recover the remote control for the Sword of Damocles.

There are, of course, a number of action sequences, but not a one of them is exciting or thrilling or scary. It feels like Carpenter is bored, except during the most infamous scene: Snake Plissken and Pipeline surfing down a Los Angeles street, complete with the two of them high-fiving that reminded me of something you would have seen in the Batman TV series:

Escape From L.A. ends on a similar WTF note that the first film did, which feels like the one genuine piece of vintage Carpenter: cynical and unromantic, it points toward a world that's even worse than the one we've just seen on display in the film.

As I mentioned above, I love John Carpenter's films, and it actually personally bothers me to say anything negative about his work. But unfortunately Escape From L.A. is no better than how I remembered it at the time: the special effects are horrendous, the action scenes are slow and uninvolving, and the story is just plain absurd: Corraface never seems remotely imposing enough to be in control of a whole city full of criminals, Buscemi is not terribly funny, Grier is wasted, and Peter Fonda just doesn't belong here at all. As for Russell, it's not like Snake Plissken is a terribly deep character, but here he delivers all his lines in this overly cartoony, clipped growl that just seems kinda ridiculous.

I think the main problem here is, the manner that John Carpenter makes his films is just at odds with major studio filmmaking, especially as it was circa 1996: you can almost feel him struggling to break free of the strictures placed on him by studio executives (when the CGI is so bad, why not just do it all as practical effects, like he had to back with the original?). Unfortunately, it seems as though those problems only got worse, until Carpenter essentially retired fro filmmaking entirely.

Many current filmmakers cite Carpenter as a major influence, surely one of them (Tarantino? Del Toro?) has enough clout and resources to hand the man ten or twenty million with no instructions other than to make a genuine John Carpenter Film? Despite his weak output of the last two decades, I'd buy a ticket for that film sight unseen!

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