Movie Review: “Escape from L.A.” (John Carpenter, USA 1996)

John Carpenter built his reputation and early career on making some truly well-made films that were then so heavily copied by hacks as to become entire genres unto themselves that contain nothing else of any value. He directed the excellent Halloween (USA 1978), creating a slasher genre that would spawn legions of bad films and essentially nothing more of any real value. He directed the very weak Assault on Precinct 13 (USA 1976), presaging the futuristic, dystopian comic book-style action genre that would later produce films like Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, USA 1987) and Mad Max (George Miller, Australia 1979) and produced probably the greatest early example of this genre (at least until Children of Men [Alfonso Cuarón, USA/UK 2006]) in Escape from New York (UK/USA 1981). When Carpenter’s career hit the skids in the 1990s, he eventually borrowed a page from George Miller’s book and made a remake/sequel to Escape from New York, Escape from L.A. (USA 1996).

The film was met with heavy derision from fans and critics alike, but Carpenter still insisted that it was a superior film to Escape from New York. While there is certainly an argument to be made that the film’s point is more obvious and it is more clearly focused on the point, everything else in the filmmaking is not only inferior to the original film but simply awful.

The plot is essentially the same as the earlier film. Snake Plissken, war hero turned bounty hunter vigilante, is needed for an urgent project to help the evil American government by infiltrating the island prison of Los Angeles in order to retrieve an important device, though this time he is tasked with killing the President’s rebellious daughter rather than saving the President himself. Once again, he is forced to aid through a threatening manipulation on the government’s part, and discovers a steampunk world of violence and decay inside the prison. Apparently people haven’t been told he’s dead this time, but maybe he should have been. Carpenter, writing with frequent collaborators Debra Hill and Kurt Russell, crafts a narrative that is such a copy of the first film that this film comes across more as a remake than a sequel, though the references to the events of the first film make it appear that it is meant as more of a sequel. They load the film with attempts at snazzy action hero dialogue for Snake and every action movie cliche in the book, but there is a surprising lack of self-awareness permeating the film, as though they do not realize that they are following all of the tropes that they helped create 15 years earlier.

It’s a film about stupidity and vapidity, a film that skewers the religious right, the city of Los Angeles, and the radical left of the ’60s. But it does it all in a very heavy-handed, dumb, and dated fashion that makes the film appear even more tied to its time than its predecessor, a film that itself has not aged well. It’s an angry, misanthropic work, and yet one that’s so busy finding groups of people to call stupid and repeating the beats of the first film that it doesn’t bother to put forth any thought. To use the clearest example of the shallowness with which any of these subjects is explored, the vapidity of L.A. culture is ruthlessly but thoughtfully attacked in such films as The Player (Robert Altman, USA 1992) and Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1954) or even in subplots to films like Annie Hall (Woody Allen, USA 1977) and Argo (Ben Affleck, USA 2012), but Carpenter is content just to say, “Everyone in L.A. is stupid” without any further elaboration or thought. Snake Plissken, the embodiment of the rebellious hero archetype of action films, has to save himself from certain death by playing basketball, and the entire city goes from cheering for his death to rooting for him just because he’s able to (quite luckily) make a few baskets–the point is clear, but also rather empty. And that’s how the film approaches everything it lambastes.

It’s also a very, very dated film, and would have been even in 1996. The evil right-wing President is practically wearing a sign that says, “I am Ronald Reagan,” eight years after Reagan left office. The President’s rebel daughter is a clear ’60s stereotype that would have been out of style when the first film was released in 1981, let alone when this one came out in 1996. Perhaps the dating was intentional in order to give the film a tonal connection to its predecessor, but it ends up feeling even more dated.

Visually, the film looks truly awful. Carpenter once showed an excellent sense of the importance of composition and lighting on Halloween, and it didn’t abandon him in his early ’80s work, even though he never was someone particularly adept at finding new visual ideas. However, he and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe just turn on the low-key lighting and follow around whomever is talking or doing the stunt, without doing anything dynamic or interesting with lighting, camera movements, or anything else. Further, they pepper the film with miniatures and CGI elements that simply look awful (and looking at some reviews from the time, no one thought they looked good then, either). The film ends up looking almost comically bad, like Frank Miller drew it on a bad day and then Kurt Russell walked in.

Acting-wise, there is little to say. No one really had much to do, and yet most managed to be pretty bad. Kurt Russell is a far more talented actor than most of his career would suggest, and he slips right back into Snake Plissken like a comfortable jacket, but it’s also an easy part to play. Steve Buscemi makes a typical comic relief appearance as a weak but relatively slimy little character, and is as usual perfect. Meanwhile, Peter Fonda, Cliff Robertson, and Georges Corraface are embarrassingly weak in their over-the-top performances and Valeria Golino manages to be so bad in just a few minutes of screen time that her character’s death is welcome.

Simply put, this film is awful. It’s a “sequel” that’s really more of a remake, with worse special effects than the original and even more dated themes and motifs. Snake Plissken is one of the ultimate touchstones for the modern action hero, but everyone once thought he was dead, and maybe he should have been this time. The film is a failure on all levels and no one should suffer through it.

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