Escape from L.A.
June 9, 2017
1 Hr., 40 Mins.
It rips the gargantuan ideas of action blockbusters of the period and announces that, this time around, absurdity is going to be an intentional virtue rather than an unsaid setback. Because writer/director John Carpenter and his co-screenwriters, Debra Hill and leading man Kurt Russell, so rigorously bow down to the highs of old-fashioned adventure films, ignoring anything by way of emotional ingenuity or intellectual meaning, we cannot help but be seduced by the way the film so unabashedly doesn’t care about anything besides having a good time.
The premise is almost identical to that of New York, but the stakes are amplified. The film takes place in 2013 (16 years after its predecessor) and reveals that the city of Los Angeles, once a booming metropolis, has now become a wasteland. After becoming one of the most crime ridden cities in the world in 1998, things took a turn for the worse in 2000 when a series of earthquakes rendered the region essentially unlivable. Though such was the result of natural causes, the new president (Cliff Robertson), a staunch theocrat, deemed the events as an act of God and decided that Los Angeles was simply being punished for its tendency to sin.
After drastic times call for drastic measures, the president, never named, is elected president for life. Being a religious zealot, he wants America to be comprehensively “moral,” passing bills that completely outlaw “tobacco, alcoholic beverages, recreational drugs, red meat, firearms, profanity, atheism, freedom of religion and extra-marital sex.”
Anyone who goes against the grain will be banished to Los Angeles, which has become an island and haven for all sinners. Those deported to the area can either continue living freely — though in awful conditions — or surrender to execution by electrocution. A containment wall lined with armed guards makes it impossible to escape. Once you go to Los Angeles, you never come back.
As the years have passed, the president’s rabid tactics have mostly worked. Few are brave enough to question his logic. But in the 2013 in which the film is set, times are changing. Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), a revolutionary who unofficially presides over Los Angeles Island, has seduced the president’s daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), and has brainwashed her into stealing her father’s remote control to a super weapon known as the “Sword of Damocles." The weapon, supremely powerful, is encompassed by a handful of satellites with the capability of blacking out the globe. The president wants to use it to weaken enemies and eventually rule the world. But in Jones’ hands, the taking back of America seems imminent.
But a saint, albeit a corrupt one, might come in the form of the protagonist of Escape from New York, Snake Plissken (Russell). A career criminal deported to L.A. for a series of misdemeanors, he’s famous for his seemingly invincible exterior and his overreaching scrappiness. On a normal day would he be a typical incoming prisoner. But because desperation regarding the Sword of Damocles is so great and because Plissken is so skilled, the president makes him an offer. If he retrieves the remote control from Utopia’s clutches, he will be granted a full pardon. Being that his other option is death, Plissken accepts. To ensure he stays on track, the president and his minions inject our anti-hero with a serum that will kill him in 10 hours if he does not succeed.
Of course, Plissken succeeds, and of course that success is underscored by the kind of exaggerated cynicism and grit Russell so effectively portrays. But Escape from L.A.’s greatest pleasure is how conclusively Carpenter transports us to another time and place. Such is not so much the result of intricate set design, necessarily. What Carpenter does, rather ingeniously, is conjoin the visual attributes of the earlier film with the manic energy of a giddy comic book and the swirling fantasies of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Visually, the film is slightly frowzy, all outlandish sets and special effects that look very 1996. But that’s all a part of the charm: it enhances the truth that we shouldn’t take anything in front of us seriously, and that we should enjoy the film as something of an ultraviolent counterpart to a Saturday morning cartoon.
The action set pieces are all ludicrous — one involves Russell riding a flooding of water on a surfboard down a beaten down city street — and the characters (all of whom appear as quasi-benchmarks to note the film’s progression) seem straight out of a Terry Gilliam movie. Supporting actors include Pam Grier, covered in what must be 10 pounds of colorful hair extensions, as a transgender carjacker from Plissken’s past, and Steve Buscemi as Maps to the Stars Eddie, an eccentric who knows Los Angeles Island front to back.
It’s all idiosyncratic and unapologetically strange, but that’s why I like Escape from L.A. Its blasé attitude toward the bizarre is refreshing, and reminiscent, even, of the feelings evoked by a children’s fantasy novel. I still prefer New York if only because it’s sleeker, tighter. But the amount of fun found in L.A. is generous and, ultimately, satisfactory. There may be Zamboni sized plot holes and there may be plenty questions provoked by some parts of the storyline. But I’ll be damned if you can find a would-be blockbuster this original or this batshit. B
hile 1981’s Escape from New York was a ferocious race-against-time thriller characterized by sizable ambition and terse execution, its sequel, 1996’s Escape from L.A., is an entirely different animal. Time is still being raced against and aspiration is still remarkable. But where New York seemed concerned with reinvention, generally capitalizing on the machismo of Clint Eastwood vehicles and injecting much-needed humor into the aesthetic, L.A. is a hotbed of satire.