#2 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.
I’m going to get so much shit for this. I mean all the shit. 100% of the shit. Oh, well. Here goes.
I love this movie. I unabashedly, unironically, and unashamedly love this movie. I think this is one of John Carpenter’s best films, and I think it’s a large step up from Escape from New York.
In my review for the first cinematic adventure of Snake Plissken I wrote that it was hampered by extreme budgetary constraints and some odd structural issues with its narrative, insisting that it really needed a script polish before shooting at the very least. Well, I feel like the script for Escape from L.A. is that script polish. Yes, Escape from L.A.is a beat for beat remake of Escape from New York. Snake Plissken is brought to infiltrate a city-sized prison of crazy sub-cultures in order to rescue a piece of technology held by a resident of the White House, setting up a conflict with the local warlord, meeting up with friends he lost along the way, and ultimately getting off the island to come face to face with the true nature of presidential leadership. There’s even a moment where Snake is put into an impossible to survive gladiatorial gauntlet that he ends up not only surviving but getting the audience to cheer him on.
John Carpenter has dealt with a lot of crap from Hollywood. A lot. He worked his butt off for decades trying to make Hollywood happy with him so that he could raise money to make movies he wanted to make. By the late 80s, he seemed to give up on the studio system with a pair of independently financed films (an experience that lead to lawsuits with the independent company), and Carpenter returned to trying to work within the studio system in the early 90s. By 1996, presented with $50 million to make a sequel to his cult hit from the 80s about a Clint Eastwood impersonation breaking into and out of jail, Carpenter seemed to decide to just burn all of his bridges at once, making a deeply cynical satire of all of Hollywood.
It wasn’t just Hollywood, though. Carpenter also hated Jerry Falwell, faux-revolutionaries, and pretty much all of modernity. Escape from L.A. is a work bred from hatred of a lot of things, and it is the nadir (one might say zenith) of his nihilism and cynicism, and that, once again, is centered on Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken.
The variations on this story from the earlier film is that it’s not the president himself lost in the citywide prison of New York, it is the president’s daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer) lost in the citywide prison of Los Angeles. She stole a weapon from a government lab (somehow, I’m okay with this) that has the power to destroy electronic capability through satellites in orbit. It can be directed or generalized, and with threats of invasion from South and Central American countries, the president (Cliff Robertson) is determined to get it back. The president is modeled after John Carpenter’s perception of Jerry Falwell, and he’s president for life after predicting that earthquake that cut off Los Angeles from the mainland and a new constitutional amendment. He’s a fervently Christian man who has set up a theocracy in America with morality laws that determine people’s behavior with the lawbreakers being exiled to Los Angeles (or executed if they so choose).
If that were the extent of the film’s satirical bent, it would rub me the wrong way, but the movie goes far beyond that opening and targets seemingly everyone. The most prominent is Hollywood itself. The twisted world of post-prison Los Angeles that Snake finds himself in is a circus of exaggerated cultures that Escape from New York had only been able to hint at. Much can be said of the substandard CGI in the film (it’s bad, and it looked bad in the 90s), but most of the money in the production went into this physical creation of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. There’s Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), the revolutionary leader in the city determined to lead the third world revolution against the theocratic America who also seduced Utopia into stealing the weapon for him and now has her as a trophy on his car (complete with a disco ball, just like the Duke of New York). There’s the different roving gangs that Snake has to move around, and the centerpiece of imagination are the Surgical Failures led by the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (Bruce Campbell).
One example of how L.A. does it better than New York are the comparable characters of Taslima (Valeria Golino) in the later film and the girl in the Chock Full o’ Nuts (Season Hubley) in the earlier film. The girl in New York shows up very briefly, begging Snake to get her out of the city, before she’s taken into a hole in the ground and disappears completely from the film. In Taslima, the later film actually takes some time to build the smallest of connections with Snake. He helps her escape the clutches of the Surgical Failures, and she even offers up a bit of backstory as she tries to help Snake in his mission. When she dies, Snake has this twinge of guilt as he holds her dead body. This moment does a fair bit for Snake’s character, making him more than just a walking body of cynicism that hates everyone. He was in the opening stages of making a real connection with someone before she dies, and the brief moment shows us Snake is capable of more but also that his cynicism is a level of protection. It goes a good way of personalizing the cynicism of the movie as a whole and a way out for Snake. He could find people, good people, in the world to connect with, but the world is so messed up that it becomes impossible.
Another example of how I find more favor with L.A. than New York is the feat of strength. In New York, it was a somewhat awkward battle between an injured Snake and an opponent that probably should have overpowered him easily. Here, it’s Snake on a basketball court pulling off an impossible feat of scoring ten points on a ten second shot clock. It’s also completely ridiculous in a way that I find affectionate. And the scene ends with another improvement on the central idea by, instead of having the Duke of New York scurry away all of a sudden without resolving the Snake problem, Cuervo Jones trying to snipe Snake despite Snake winning. Cuervo is no pure alternative to the theocratic president. He’s an awful person, not dedicated to his ideals but only his quest for power. With Utopia by his side suddenly seeing this terrible side of him she ends up functioning as a continuation of Taslima. Snake lets her go when he probably shouldn’t, considering his orders.
There are still two moments where Snake gets rescued randomly, but they end up playing better even if they probably still feel too convenient. The first is when he gets picked up by Map to the Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi) after Snake loses Cuervo for the first time. The second time is after the basketball feat when he gets lost in the sewers, coming out miraculously right next to Peter Fonda’s Pipeline, ready with two surf boards and the incoming giant wave that’s going to ride right next to Map to the Stars Eddie’s car driving on the road next to it. It’s a bit much, but the absolute gal of the film to make such a ludicrous decision is one reason I love the movie. So, yeah, the construction maintains some of my issues with the first film, but the execution is so balls to the wall out there that I admire it at the same time.
The movie embraces ridiculousness more and more as it heads towards its conclusion with Snake meeting up with Pam Grier’s Carjack to get some gliders and fly to Cuervo Jones’ embarkation point for the invasion of the United States where they fight from the air, steal a helicopter, and only Snake and Utopia end up making it back to the mainland.
I love this movie up to this point. It’s crazy and fun, but the ending is something else. This is John Carpenter raising his middle finger to the whole world and saying, “Screw you all.” This is Carpenter taking out all of his anger out on everyone he can in a movie. Russell, apparently, actually came up with the idea for the ending (getting his sole writing credit in his long career), but it was Carpenter who loved it, approved it, filmed it, and edited it in. Snake takes the EMP weapon and does the only thing someone who hated everything would do. He’s sick of everyone’s bull, and he’s going to take out his anger out on the whole world. Is this a healthy worldview? Probably not. However, I love it as an ending. It’s the sort of nihilism that you don’t see in large productions for good reason. It doesn’t sell well. People don’t want to see it. I’m fine if they don’t want to see it, but I like seeing it from time to time.
I love this movie completely. At the same time I get why it doesn’t play well with most audiences. It’s big and brazen in a certain kind of silliness while being completely and thoroughly nihilistic and cynical at a level that many people find unpleasant. I don’t, though. This movie works at a level that I really appreciate, and I think it’s massively misunderstood and underappreciated. It’s one of my favorite movies Carpenter ever made.