After making several career-defining classics in the 1980s, film director John Carpenter struggled to find his footing in the 1990s with the only memorable film being the sorely underrated In the Mouth of Madness (1995). The rest of his output from this decade ranges from fascinatingly flawed (Vampires) to downright mediocre (Village of the Damned). Somewhere in-between is Escape from L.A. (1996), the long-gestating sequel to Carpenter’s dystopian futuristic masterpiece Escape from New York (1981). It also marked the director’s return to a major studio after making the instantly forgettable Chevy Chase vanity project Memoirs of An Invisible Man (1992). Carpenter was coaxed back into the fold by his good friend Kurt Russell, who had always fondly regarded Escape’s protagonist Snake Plissken. The final result was a decidedly schizophrenic affair, an uneven hybrid of remake/sequel that failed to please fans of the original and mystified the uninitiated. One can see what Carpenter and co. were trying to do – satirize not just Los Angeles culture but also big budget blockbuster action films. Sadly, they weren’t very successful on either front, but the film does have its merits.
In 2000, a massive earthquake ravages the west coast causing the San Fernando Valley to flood, turning L.A. into an island. Crime has gotten so bad that, like New York City before it, L.A. has become a prison surrounded by a containment wall with the United States Army encamped around the island. Thirteen years later, notorious outlaw Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has been captured yet again and is set to be “deported” to L.A. Like in Escape from New York, he is given another deal – go into the city and find Utopia (A.J. Langer), the President of the U.S.’ daughter who has become a brainwashed revolutionary of the oppressed courtesy of Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), leader of the biggest baddest gang in the city. More importantly, he convinced her to steal the President’s remote control to the “Sword of Damocles,” a collection of satellites that when activated can destroy electronics worldwide. Snake is enlisted to find the remote and bring it back before Jones can use it to trigger an allied invasion of third world nations from Central and South America. Oh yeah, and kill Utopia as well. Of course, there’s a catch. He has less than ten hours to live before a deadly virus causes his central nervous system to shut down. So, Snake goes in via a one-man submarine and crosses paths with all sorts of wild, eccentric denizens of L.A.
The problem that faces fans of Escape from New York going into Escape from L.A. are the inevitable comparisons, and let’s face it, the sequel fails on all fronts. The biggest problem is that instead of creating a new adventure from scratch, Escape from L.A.’s plot is almost literally a beat-for-beat retread of the first film. And so anyone with any kind of knowledge of it finds themselves sizing up the two in their minds. The first thing is the casting. Stacy Keach, who plays the exact same kind of character that Lee Van Cleef did in the first film, pales in comparison, as does Cliff Robertson who plays the President this time around instead of Donald Pleasence, and while Steve Buscemi is a gifted comic actor, he’s no Ernest Borgnine, and simply can’t fill his shoes playing the same kind of comic relief character. Furthermore, the Duke of New York, played so vividly by Isaac Hayes, is replaced by Cuervo Jones, a Che Guevara wannabe complete with a pimped out ride much like the Duke. He is played rather blandly by George Corraface. I’m sure he is a fine actor but was simply miscast in this film. One never feels that Jones is a figure to be feared, like the Duke in Escape from New York was, and why legions of gang members would bother to follow him. One never feels like Jones is a match for Snake and this diminishes the threat that our hero faces.
To add insult to injury, the cool gladiatorial match that Snake fights in a boxing ring in the first film is replaced by a basketball challenge where he must score ten points with each basket to be done in ten seconds with no misses or he’s dead. While this does show off Russell’s incredible athletic prowess, it is a pretty lame challenge for Snake to do. The actor carries the film and makes it semi-watchable through sheer force of will. It looks like he’s having a blast putting on the eye patch again. Despite being surrounded by wildly uneven quality from scene to scene, Russell’s performance is constantly excellent as he continues to play Snake as a gravelly-voiced badass who still hates authority figures of all kinds, whether it is the President or two-bit revolutionary Cuervo Jones.
To be fair, it isn’t the actors’ fault but rather the unimaginative screenplay written by Carpenter, producer Debra Hill and Russell. Nick Castle, Carpenter’s old University of Southern California buddy, helped write Escape from New York and his dark sense of humor, which elevated it from being just a straight-ahead action film to something more, is sorely missed in the sequel. And so, we get things like the rehash of the recurring joke in Escape from New York where everyone who meets Snake claims that they thought he was dead, which then gets tweaked in Escape from L.A. to the lame gag of everyone he runs into saying that they thought he was taller.
The script does succeed in updating the social commentary from the first film to reflect the times in which the sequel was made. The President of the U.S. is an ultra-conservative who sees himself ruling a “Moral America” and to this end bans things like tobacco, alcoholic beverages, red meat, firearms, cursing, non-Christian religions and so on. At one point in the film, Snake meets a woman who was deported to L.A. because she was a practicing Muslim in South Dakota. Carpenter is clearly commenting on the politically correct climate that had descended on America at the time the film was made. However, moments like that eerily foreshadow the distrust people had of those of the Muslim faith after 9/11. There is also an interesting argument made that despite the incredibly dangerous atmosphere, L.A. is the last place in the U.S. where one is free to act and do whatever they want. The rest of the country is run by a President who rules with a politically correct iron fist. Carpenter seems to be saying that when looked at it in that way is it really such a bad place? Most of the satirical jabs at L.A. culture work, especially the casting of Bruce Campbell as the grotesque Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, aided by plastic surgery disaster nurses who clearly have had too many implants and facelifts. Played with gusto by Campbell, the Surgeon General and his crew are a spot-on parody of L.A.’s sick fascination with staying forever young.
Escape from L.A.’s production design is excellent as Carpenter presents a burnt out, earthquake-ravaged city. There are some impressive visuals, like the stunning shot of the L.A. Freeway transformed into a graveyard of trashed and abandoned vehicles. There are also some amusing bits, like a wounded Snake hanging ten with Peter Fonda’s far-out surfer in a sequence that is simultaneously cheesy and cool as it alternates between good and badly rendered CGI scored to some groovy retro surf music. The sheer ridiculousness of it all, coupled with Fonda’s Zen surfer, transforms the sequence from downright silly to campy fun. I also like that Carpenter emphasizes the western genre aspects with Snake as the lone gunslinger going into a dangerous town. This is evident in scenes like when he dispatches four hapless gunmen via “Bangkok rules” scored to Ennio Morricone-esque music in a nice little homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns.
Ever since making Escape from New York, Kurt Russell never forgot the character of Snake Plissken. In the ‘80s, John Carpenter and Russell talked about how fun it would be to revisit the character but they had no story ideas other than it would be set in Los Angeles. At one point a draft was written in 1986 by Coleman Luck but was quickly rejected. After the one-two punch of the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 and then the Northridge earthquake of 1994, Russell contacted Carpenter and told him that he wanted to do a sequel to Escape from New York. According to the director, Russell’s initial idea was that the city was “the most outrageous place to live and yet none of us can leave … why don’t we leave? What’s keeping us here? And, we both realized that we’re all in denial.” The two men felt that out of those sentiments was a story they could tell. Carpenter’s agent suggested that the director and Russell write the screenplay themselves and then shop it around Hollywood as a big-budget film. Carpenter reunited with the film’s producer Debra Hill and he wrote the first draft in September 1994 while making Village of the Damned (1995) with help from her over eight months. Russell came in and tweaked not just the dialogue but also the film’s ending.
Carpenter, Hill and Russell shopped the script around Hollywood and sold it to Paramount Pictures in May 1995 thanks to then-head of the studio Sherry Lansing who was a big fan of Escape from New York and had actively pursued them for the script. It also didn’t hurt that Russell had just headlined surprise box office hit Stargate in 1995 making him a bankable international movie star. Their draft came in at a hefty 146 pages. Over time, both the length of the script and the proposed size of the budget were reduced. After the problems he had with 20th Century Fox over how they handled the distribution and promotion of Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Carpenter was understandably reluctant to work with another one but he was given more control over the final product with Escape from L.A. The only mandate they gave Carpenter and his collaborators was that most of the potential mainstream audience hadn’t seen the first film, “they didn’t know who Snake is,” Carpenter said in an interview, “so you’ve got to tell them who he is, what your world set-up is … but those who’ve seen the original can smile and say ‘Oh I see it. This is very familiar territory.’ They’re in on the joke.”
Just before principal photography began, Carpenter was worried that he wouldn’t be able to get back into the world he had helped create in Escape from New York but once it began he settled into a familiar groove. Escape from L.A. was shot mostly at night over 70 days during a very cold time in and around a lot of “desolate areas” in the city because the streets looked too nice. Carpenter remembers that it was “the coldest that I’ve been since filming The Thing … Night after night of it just wears you down.” Towards the end of principal photography, Russell had to divide his time between filming and promoting another one of his films, Executive Decision (1996). It was a punishing schedule as the actor did almost all of his own stunts while suffering from the flu.
Escape from L.A. received mixed to positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Escape From L.A. has fun with the whole concept of pictures like itself. It goes deliberately and cheerfully over the top, anchored by Russell's monosyllabic performance, which makes Clint Eastwood sound like Gabby Hayes.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Stack called it, “Dark, percussive and perversely fun.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “Compared to Escape From New York, the weapons are bigger and the violence is more extensive, although it’s toned down by today’s excessive standards. There are also greater special effects this time … But Escape From L.A. is more enjoyable in a playful way.”
However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Carpenter never was the filmmaker his cult claimed him to be, but in Escape From L.A., he at least has the instinct to keep his hero moving, like some leather-biker Candide.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden felt that the film was “much too giddy to make sense as a politically astute pop fable. As amusing as some of its notions may be, none are developed into sustained running jokes.”
I can remember being very disappointed with Escape from L.A. when I first saw it because it didn’t live up to the standards of Escape from New York. Seeing it again years later, I can’t completely hate it because one feels that Carpenter’s heart is in the right place. It’s just that he went about this sequel all-wrong. The remake/sequel approach rarely works (with notable exceptions being Evil Dead II and Desperado) and Carpenter tried to split the difference and ended up pleasing no one. The CGI is uneven at best, the bad guy is ineffectual and Snake is trivialized. We don’t want to see him throwing basketballs around and surfing – we want to see him be a badass. And yet, Carpenter wanted it both ways by having moments were Snake comes across as his old self, especially with the ending, while also having more playful moments. This is the film’s biggest problem: tonally it is all over the place. Is it a satire? Is it a serious sci-fi film with a message? The film doesn't know what it wants to be. It tries to be everything at once and feels scattered as a result. The biggest sin of all is wasting such a fantastic cast of cult/character actors. If I seem rather harsh on Escape from L.A. it’s only because the film had a lot to live up to. I do enjoy it and the film certainly isn’t the worst thing that Carpenter ever made but it is big letdown in comparison to Escape from New York. I can appreciate the notion that Escape from L.A. is a satirical commentary on the vanity and self-obsessed nature of L.A. in the mid-‘90s. This explains the excessiveness and often-ridiculous tone compared to the much darker, grimmer one of the original. I also feel that Carpenter was making fun of how bloated and over-the-top big budget action films had become. The best thing about Escape from L.A. is its message – the notion of beginning again, throwing everything out and starting over, echoing the ending of Escape from New York but going one step further as Snake returns the world to the brink. Welcome to the human race indeed.