By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 15, 2015
John Carpenter is one of the all-time great directors of horror movies. His 1978 feature, Halloween, practically invented the slasher flick out of whole cloth. A number of the director’s pictures involve the only type of horror that I like watching — the kind that comes with a science-fiction twist. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is one of the best examples of the subgenre, rivaled perhaps only by Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), which explores the same sort of body horror as Carpenter’s picture.
(Not coincidentally, Carpenter co-wrote his first feature, the 1974 student film Dark Star, with Dan O’Bannon, who was one of Alien’s co-writers.)
Other than Halloween and The Thing, Carpenter is probably best known for Escape from New York, his 1981 science fiction/action movie in which Manhattan has been converted to a prison island to which convicts are permanently banished. The movie boasts a terrific premise and was a perfect reflection of a time when many Americans viewed cities — and New York City in particular — as dangerous dens of decay and iniquity.
The feature also benefited tremendously from a glowering Kurt Russell, who starred as Snake Plissken, the taciturn ex-Special Forces war hero-turned-prisoner who’s ordered to retrieve the president, and the vital information that he carries, before the explosive charges that have been implanted in his body detonate. (The government trusts Plissken only as far as it can bully him.)
So Escape from New York’s concept was intriguing, and its star was charismatic, but as far as the overall film goes, I thought it was kind of meh. Still, I was curious to see Carpenter and Russell’s 1996 follow-up, Escape from L.A.
Unfortunately, the newer movie exhibits many of the worst tendencies of sequels: It tries to top the original by repeating everything that the first one did, only with bigger action sequences and more special effects. But Carpenter is at best an indifferent action director, from what I’ve seen — witness, for instance, Ghosts of Mars. The special effects in Escape from L.A. are by and large dire, and the film’s only moderately entertaining action sequence is the first one, wherein Plissken attempts to hijack a parade headed up by gangster-cum-warlord-cum-revolutionary Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface, whose first name is listed sans S in the credits).
The script, which Carpenter co-wrote with Russell and frequent collaborator Debra Hill, copies its predecessor to a fault. (This is the only feature film that Russell has produced or for which he’s taken a script credit, incidentally.) Once again, a government jet has been hijacked — this time by Utopia (A.J. Langer), the daughter of the (again-unnamed) president; once again, the missing person is somewhere on a prison island — this time the remnants of Los Angeles, which has been isolated from the mainland by a catastrophic earthquake; once again, the missing person is carrying or may know the whereabouts of something vital — this time a mysterious doomsday weapon; once again, Plissken is captured and offered a chance for a pardon if he infiltrates the prison and returns the Macguffin to the government.
Carpenter and company have recast the president, who is no longer merely the pompous empty suit played by Donald Pleasance in the first film. Here, Cliff Robertson plays a new American president-for-life, a religious zealot who condemns citizens for moral crimes and relocates the White House to his hometown of Lynchburg, Va. (Think George W. Bush by way of Jerry Falwell — and remember that this film predates Bush’s election by four years.) After his daughter steals the doomsday weapon and escapes into Los Angeles to be with Jones, thereby setting up the plot of the film, the president orders that Utopia be executed.
There are some new James Bond–like gadgets in the sequel, not least among them the doomsday device, which is given more play than the never-explained information Pleasance had in Escape from New York. Carpenter throws in a one-man nuclear-powered submarine that Plissken uses to infiltrate the prison island in a wretched computer-animated sequence; there’s also a tranquilizer dart and a portable holographic projector. But none of it is all that interesting.
The middle stretch of Escape from L.A. is the best part of the movie. Carpenter introduces a sympathetic character in the form of Taslima (Valeria Golino), a Midwesterner who was exiled to Los Angeles after being a Muslim became a crime. (The writers seem to have anticipated the political zeitgeist of the 21st-century Republican Party with uncanny accuracy.) We also meet a fast-talking show-biz type named Eddie (Steve Buscemi, in one of the movie’s livelier turns) and briefly detour into a hellish den of deformed plastic-surgery devotees led by the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (Bruce Campbell). And it’s nice to see Plissken back in action — Russell seems just as intense as ever, 15 years after he filmed Escape from New York.
But I started tuning out about two-thirds of the way into the picture when Plissken and an aging surfer dude named Pipeline (Peter Fonda, wouldn’t you know?) ride a tsunami wave through L.A. The composite shot looks completely unconvincing, and none of the subsequent action gets any better. Between the copycat script, the bad effects and the overall lack of thrills, watching Escape from L.A. became too much like the kind of chore I watch escapist entertainment in order to avoid.