It’s always a tough moment when you’re forced to confront the news that a beloved artist is starting to lose their touch. Whether it’s Messrs Spielberg and Lucas running Indiana Jones into the ground in 2008 or Wes Craven going from a career high to a career low within a single franchise (Scream), it’s always a tough reality to face that your favorite auteur has maybe lost a step or two.
While steadily prolific during the 90’s, even the most ardent John Carpenter fan could tell that this master of unbridled cinematic awesomeness was turning out movies that wasn’t up to the standard of his glittering output during the 80’s. The transparent comedy Memoirs Of An Invisible Man suitably vanished without a trace and the stunningly pointless remake of Village Of The Dammed came up short with both fans and audiences treating it like the proverbial unwanted stepchild.
However, in 1996 he had a legitimate shot to score a return to form by directing his first ever sequel by returning to one of his most notorious creations: the eyepatched, nihilistic, loner known as Snake Plissken – it’s hugely ironic that any hope for the film, with it’s one-eyed protagonist, would prove to be fairly myopic…
Back in “the future” known as 1998, LA is/was ravaged by an earthquake that separated the city from the rest of the USA which led to a hugely religious president to agree to a life time term and subsequently passed new laws that made so-called “moral crimes” punishable by banishment. Prostitutes, atheists, runaways, smokers and anyone with “deviant” views or lifestyles are sent to LA to live out the rest of their lives in the dystopian city.
Jump ahead to 2013 and the President’s daughter has stolen a potential doomsday device that’s needed to stop other countries invading the U.S. and takes refuge with her lover, Peruvian terrorist Cuervo Jones who then proceeds to hold the country to ransom.
As “luck” would have it, legendary outlaw Snake Plissken has been brought in on charges of gun fighting for profit (good work if you can get it I suppose…) and before you can say “hold on isn’t this the exact same plot as the original?”, he’s tooled up, pumped full of a virus that will kill him in 10 hours and aimed at LA like a gravelly voiced missile.
In LA Snake has to befriend or avoid the various characters who populate the city, such as aged surfer Pipeline, duplicitous motor-mouth Map To The Stars Eddie and the fearsome, scalpel-happy Surgeon General Of Beverley Hills and strive to accomplish his mission against the usual overwhelming odds. Plissken may have escaped New York, but LA may prove to be an entirely different kettle of fish altogether – spoiler: it isn’t. It’s EXACTLY the same…
Just because a sequel chooses to remake it’s first installment, it doesn’t always mean the filmmakers are out of ideas; after all both Evil Dead 2 and Phantasm 2 both benefitted from retelling their no-budget origins with a greatly enhanced reserve of cash but with Escape From LA it unfortunately turns out to be different and stinks of laziness. The differences are painfully cosmetic: swap LA for NY, a nuclear sub for a glider and a life or death game of basketball (no, seriously) for an arena duel and you practically have exactly the same movie that neither sevices fans OR newcomers. As a huge fan of the original, I had near fatal bouts of deja-vu that felt like the Matrix was going into serious overtime rebooting itself and newbies simply didn’t care for the concept that much, with Carpenter’s usual anti-authority tone blown up to a cartoonish degree. Whereas the first Escape was a cool subversion of the anti-hero squaring up to those in power and giving then a subtle middle-finger, this return turns out to be a garish spoof that only seems to exist to give Carpenter and Russell a sizable payday.
Speaking of an inflated cash flow, while the director has far more resources at his disposal, he actually manages to achieve less with the movie easily boasting some of the worst visual effects of the decade with the various high tech vehicles and war torn urban landscapes looking like a videogame you’d instantly trade back in for a better one. I don’t know how good the scene where Snake traverses a tsunami wave on a surfboard to catch up with a speeding car looked on paper, but it looks fucking awful on the big screen…
With the plot so painfully derivative it’s a wonder Carpenter didn’t sue himself for plagiarism (something he actually did with Luc Besson’s Lockout), but to give the devil it’s due every now and then Escape manages to somehow pull an eye patched rabbit out of the hat with a memorable moment or two. One time the blantent copying pays off is with the hiring of a clutch of character actors to portray the goons and freaks that fill the cast list. Steve Buscemi, Bruce Campbell, Stacy Keach, Pam Grier (as a transgender merc), Peter Fonda and Cliff Robertson all seem to be having legitimate fun and it’s genuinely strange to see Tobey Maguire’s dear old Uncle Ben as a religiously tyrannical President Of The United States. Also Kurt Russell thankfully hasn’t lost his calling as the cycloptic anti-hero Plissken, whether rasping his lines in that familiar Clint Eastwood drawl or shamelessly cheating in a kill or be killed spot of Bangkok rules quick draw shooting, Russell is the only real consistent aspect in this whole mess.
However, in the dying moments of the film, Escape From LA manages to fire off a parting shot that nearly single-handedly drags it’s rating up an entire star as it takes the concept of it’s predecessor’s anti-authority denouement and pumps it full of amphetamines with spectacular effect.
Needless to say, putting Snake Plissken in a tight spot with a device that can shut down the world with an EMP blast while the rest of the globe watches may not be a good thing for the planet but it does wonders for the movie and you finally get an idea what Capenter was aiming for… just as the credits roll.
Maybe not the worst of Carpenter’s 90’s output but definitely the most disappointing, L.A marked a spiral that the director never really pulled up from but there’s just enough of the old magic sprinkled around to make it interesting to devoted fans – as for everyone else, escape… escape while you can.