John Carpenter could do little wrong in cinema for a long time. Then, the 1990’s rolled around and a series of poor-to-awful films stained the C.V of a once spotless filmmaker. So, in 1996, Carpenter went back over to what should have been safe ground with the sequel to Escape From New York, his classic 1981 film starring Kurt Russell as the iconic antihero Snake Plissken. The sequel Escape From L.A is not anywhere near as good as the original film, but it’s not totally without merit if you can stick with it.
The plot is essentially a coast-switching rehash of Escape From New York: Los Angeles has become an island after a massive earthquake, and America’s fundamentalist Christian president uses the city as a dumping ground for criminals and ‘’moral degenerates’’ who have been exiled from the new purer than pure USA. The president’s daughter, Utopia, is groomed by a terrorist, Cuervo Jones, on the island via some dodgy 90’s interpretation of virtual reality and cyberspace, to steal a remote control which will control a series of satellites that can destroy all electrical equipment – including batteries – across the planet. Utopia escapes from one of the Presidential planes in an escape pod to give the control to Jones, who is planning an invasion of America, so Snake is sent in to rescue the control, kill Utopia and save the world. He’s also been infected by a designer virus that’s killing him and the only way to cure it is to complete the mission. Upon completion, he will also be granted with a complete pardon dismissing his past crimes.
So Snake goes into L.A and meets a variety of weird and wonderful characters, but as expected, he makes plenty of enemies among the uncivilised derelicts and criminals of the new Los Angeles. There are plenty of fights and the humour flows; not for one second does the film take itself too seriously. Plus, there’s an amazingly nihilistic ending that goes against the grain of what you might be expecting. So why doesn’t it work?
The script is the culprit here. Sure, quality actors like Steve Buscemi, Cliff Robertson, Russell do what they can – and indeed, so do most of the people in the film. However, the script by Carpenter, with long-time partner Debra Hill and Kurt Russell is at times shockingly poorly and underdeveloped. Whereas in Escape From New York characters were so broad and well-written we actually felt something for them; we engaged and invested emotionally. Here, sloppily put together characters’ pop up and disappear almost as fast. It’s hard to care when they die, be they good or bad. They’re just cut-outs, and seeing the likes of Bruce Campbell not utilised to his full potential is disappointing, especially when his Surgeon General of Beverly Hills character hinted at so much sinister potential.
Even Snake himself is written so he slips into parody. We get surfboarding Snake, Hang-gliding Snake and Basketball star Snake. But we don’t really get the tough bastard – and a bit of a prick – Snake from the first film until near the end. Thankfully, the ending almost redeems much of what came before it. It’s a pity, because Carpenter and Russell clearly love the character and there’s potential there, but it’s wasted through too many tediously gimmicky stunts played out with some of the worst matte shots/CGI you’ll see in a film only 20 years old.
Yet when the film lands a hit it does so well. The pious President who expels those who don’t fit his image hits awfully close in a year where a dangerous clown like Donald Trump could win an election. Furthermore, a militarised American police force seems real now. The aforementioned all-too quick cameo from Bruce Campbell does brighten things up for around four minutes, but again, the failure to expand on his character further or use the actor in a more prominent role is disappointing. There are some memorable cameos and characters; though it is more of a case of wondering what could have been more than anything else.
Upon its release, the film was panned by critics and tanked at the box office. Carpenter was a director in need of a hit, but Escape From L.A. was unable to capitalise on the cult status of its predecessor. Most of Carpenter’s films have become more appreciated with time, even this one to an extent. However, there’s no denying that it’s a shadow of what it should have been. That being said, fans have been clamouring for Kurt Russell to stick on the eye-patch one more time and reprise, arguably, the most celebrated role of his career for one last rendezvous. At this point, a sequel would be welcome, even if it was just to get Carpenter directing again.
All in, Escape From L.A. isn’t a terrible film. It has its entertaining moments and is more than passable popcorn fare if you take it on its own terms. It’s the product of a filmmaker who had nearly run out of steam trying to get his career back on the right track following a slew of commercial slumps and critical lampooning’s. You could even say he’d lost his way. But looking back on it, there is still fun to be had if you go in with the right mind set. There are worse films out there than Escape From L.A. after all, but it’s not one of the stronger entries in Carpenter’s mostly on-point filmography. Still, we don’t see movies like this get made anymore, and that’s a shame.