Escape from L.A. (1996)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: May 26th, 2020
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
John Carpenter is no stranger to his films meeting with a lukewarm reception upon release. Arguably the quintessential cult filmmaker, many of his revered films didn’t catch fire at the box office but went on to be etched into the canon thanks to video store and cable movie junkies who started fashioning the altar so many of us worship at today. Escape from New York was one of the exceptions, though: both a critical and box office hit, his bleak vision of a dystopian America inspired countless knock-offs and reverberates with more prescience with each passing year. His decision to follow it up with a sequel 15 years later seems like it should have been one of the few financial slam-dunks of his career: after all, Kurt Russell’s star was still shining more brightly than ever, and it’s not like a follow-up to EFNY was sacrilege because you could imagine an endless number of Snake Plissken adventures.
Unfortunately, Carpenter’s sequel sang a somewhat familiar tune: while it matched its predecessor’s box office total, it did so on eight times the budget, meaning it only recouped about half of the $50 million Paramount sunk into it. What’s more, the film met with critical ambivalence, with many dismissing it as an inferior redux of the original movie. The die was cast, putting Escape from L.A. on that well-worn path to becoming a cult classic as the devoted set to reappraising it. And maybe we’re not at the point where it’s widely considered to be among the best in Carpenter’s oeuvre, we should acknowledge that it deserved better than the reception it got upon release and the decade or so thereafter, when most of his 90s output was lumped together as evidence of his faded glory. Like most of those films, L.A. is simply bursting with too much imagination and energy to just shrug off.
Admittedly, “imagination” might not be the first word to spring to mind for a movie that features so much déjà vu. It’s been 16 years since Snake’s exploits in New York, but the song has largely remained the same, with only minor details changing. This time, Los Angeles is the wasteland reserved for degenerates in a new moral America lorded over by an evangelical charlatan (Cliff Robertson). Decimated in the year 2000 by an earthquake, southern California is now an island cut off from the mainland where chaos and debauchery reign. When the president’s daughter (A.J. Langer) steals a top secret weapon and joins the ranks of a freedom-fighter (George Corraface) hoping to free the island’s undesirables, it just happens to coincide with Snake’s recent incarceration. Before he can even be shipped off to the island, he’s brought into a room and is quick to cut through the chit-chat: “get to the deal,” he hisses, having obviously been through this shit before.
In a way, it feels like Carpenter’s acknowledgement of the déjà vu, which hardly relents once it becomes clear that the sequel is going through the same beats as the original, with only some of the particulars—most of them geographic—slightly altered. Instead of iconic NYC locations, we see the decaying husk of L.A as Snake pilots a submarine (no stealth glider this time) through the submerged wreckage. He surfaces to a familiar chain of events: instead of Cabbie, he’s got Map to the Stars Eddie (Steve Buchemi) to help him navigate the wasteland, which teems with an assortment of colorful characters and pitfalls along the way. Like Isaac Hayes’s Duke of New York, Corraface’s Cuervo Jones boasts a garish entourage and a horde of minions to do his bidding. Snake runs afoul of him and eventually has to engage in bloodsport to escape alive, only this time it’s not gladiatorial combat but a high-stakes game of basketball during a ludicrous sequence that only makes more sense now that we know Carpenter spends so much of his time watching the NBA. Everybody tells Snake they assumed he’d be taller instead of telling him they heard he died. You get the picture—it’s the same but just different enough.
This might sound a little sacrilegious, but Carpenter’s effort to distinguish this sequel through the sheer power of casting arguably results in an even more impressive assortment of characters. Even if some are only around for glorified cameo appearances, any cast featuring Paul Bartel, Bruce Campbell, Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, and Stacy Keach should be dismissed at your own peril. There’s so much manic personality on display from these genre legends, who are like lunatics unleashed in the asylum. Carpenter brings a maniacal spark to L.A, and the cast and crew are game at harnessing the unhinged energy that gives this sequel a distinct flavor. Where Escape from New York is a testament to Carpenter’s trademark restraint, L.A. feels like the filmmaker cashing in his chips and going all-in on himself. If there’s a defining characteristic to the director’s best work, it’s that even-keeled restraint that allows his movies to hum along on an almost subdued wavelength. They’re exciting and suspenseful but they somehow never have to raise their voice to be so, if that makes any sense. Escape from L.A. has no qualms about raising its voice and bounding along with an absurdist, over-the-top hitch in its step, something that’s obvious from the opening strains of Shirley Walker’s amped-up rendition of the classic theme song.
Afforded in the biggest sandbox he ever had in his career, Carpenter wasn’t about to produce a modest affair. It’s fun to imagine the master surveying the various rip-offs of his own work and wanting to get in on that action, and I submit that it’s probably best to see Escape from L.A. less as a sequel and more like Carpenter making his own variation of those gonzo Italian productions that often spliced Escape from New York with other popular films. Escape from L.A. is similar to those films in that you can see the bones of the original classic if you squint hard enough and look past all of the outrageous embellishments. Of course, this has much more cache than those films could ever hope for, not only because of Carpenter’s participation but also because that budget allows it to mostly achieve its grandiose vision.
Let me go ahead and head you off at the pass because I can feel you raising your finger to point out some of the unsightly CGI and effects work that’s only grown more infamous since the film’s release. I’m not about to argue that it’s somehow not as bad as we all remember (if anything, it’s probably worse), but there’s something admirable about the ambition behind it, at least. Knowing that this was likely the best they could do at the time makes it slightly more excusable, too: it’s not like we’re talking about some low-budget affair settling for bad effects out of apathy. Could Carpenter have dialed things back? Sure, but that would’ve been the antithesis of a kitchen sink approach that, if nothing else, goes for broke. In some ways, this feels like an exasperated Carpenter emptying the clip: okay, you’re gonna get what you wanted, but you’re getting it on his own outlandish terms.
If Escape from New York is a grounded, authentic Snake Plissken story, then L.A. is a tale that’s been warped by a long game of telephone that distort and exaggerate his exploits with each new retelling. You can imagine all of these feats being passed around a post-apocalyptic campfire. “Did you hear how Snake surfed the L.A. river alongside a hippie burn-out?” “What about how he sank a full-court shot and escaped the clutches of Cuervo Jones?” “I heard he soared a hang-glider through the fiery Santa Anas winds to get the drop on Cuervo later.” The absurd, over-the-top nature of the film is a feature, not a bug; if anything, it reinforces that the most prominent so-called bug—the rampant backlot artificiality—is also a feature. After all, shouldn’t a tall tale about Hollywood feel a little plasticine and phony?
It seems noteworthy that two pillars of Hollywood’s tourism industry—Universal Studios and Disneyland (here dubbed “Happy Kingdom By the Sea”—are prominently reduced to rubble, with the latter hosting the film’s climax. Twisting these establishment dream factories into the stuff of nightmares (and this is to say nothing about the lurid den of botched cosmetics Snake encounters) feels like Carpenter taking it out on the town that never quite got his work, so he’s tossed it to the wolves of the outcast and the damned. It should also be noted that the denizens of L.A. are positioned as the upstart heroes, living defiantly “degenerate” but full lives in the face of American oppression, creating a love/hate relationship with the town.
If the politics here are a little tricky to pin down, they come into focus with Snake, the film’s misanthropic anti-hero who doesn’t give much of a shit about either side. He’s only serving the establishment because they’ve injected him with a virus again, and whatever kinship he might share with L.A.’s freaks and exiles is mostly a matter of practicality, a means to an end. Russell is marvelous as Plissken, who feels like he stepped straight out of 1981 into 1996 without missing a beat. Everything surrounding him might feel a bit like a satirical parody, but Russell remains a gruff, steadfast prescience who refuses to wink at the camera. He was the primary force behind Escape from L.A., as he spent years badgering Carpenter to let him slip on the eye-patch one more time. His writing credit here remains the only one of his illustrious career, and his affection and ownership of this character is evident in every frame. I know it’s inevitable that someone will take up this mantle for a remake (Hollywood’s been threatening it long enough), but it’s difficult imagining anyone else in the role. Kurt Russell is to Snake what Harrison Ford is to Indiana Jones: it’s a performance that’s so iconic and well-realized that the actor melts away and becomes the character.
And what a character he is, at that. While Snake is Carpenter’s homage to the mercenary Western heroes, Russell infuses him with a grim-faced righteousness. He doesn’t presume to be a paragon of virtue, but Snake is a man with a clear moral compass that advises him to distrust and sabotage the establishment at all costs. It’s become part of his legend by Escape from L.A., so much so that his new set of handlers are constantly on guard for his trademark subterfuge. Their best efforts prove to be ineffectual, of course, as Snake outwits the man once again, this time to an apocalyptic degree. Having once again burrowed through the belly of the beast, Snake decides the powers-that-be need a reckoning, and it’s hard to disagree.
Not to resort to the cliché and make everything about the horrific 2016 election, but Escape from L.A. has only grown more prescient, particularly in its prediction that toxic evangelism would poison the American well. Those seeds were planted, of course, in the era that gave rise to Escape from New York; they’re unfortunately flourishing now, nearly 25 years after Escape from L.A.’s prediction that a cult of personality would lead to a deranged charlatan taking office for life at the behest of his rabid followers. As such, Escape from L.A.’s bleak denouement, which sees Snake decimate the entire globe’s electronics, feels grimly cathartic in 2020, the final “fuck you” grace note from a filmmaker with no fucks left to give. No, Escape from L.A. might not fully recapture the glory of its predecessor, but it certainly retains its gutsy nihilism. A film that’s defined by déjà vu practically stares itself down in the mirror here and emerges through the looking glass with an obvious message: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The corrupt will always be corrupt, and we’ll be forced to forever fight these same wars over and over again. Better to just level the battlefield altogether.
You have to hand it to Scream Factory for their devotion to John Carpenter. Pretty much since the label’s inception, they’ve taken on the task of bestowing his works with lovingly-crafted collector’s edition. The nearly decade-long project has inevitably arrived at Escape from L.A., marking the film’s second foray onto Blu-ray following a bare bones Paramount release from a decade ago. Unlike a lot of these Paramount vault releases, L.A. benefits from a brand new 4K restoration that improves upon the previous disc. This is a naturally dark movie, but this transfer retains sharp details and vibrancy, and it’s matched with a boisterous 5.1 DTS HD-MA track to boot. As someone who’s breaking in some new home theater gear, this release was a great little benchmark test for my new set-up. (Ditto for Scream Factory’s EFNY disc, which features one of the most impressive 5.1 remixes my ears have ever heard.)
The extras are also fine, if not a bit underwhelming considering how many noteworthy faces are absent. You won’t see or hear from Russell or Carpenter, but Scream at least did nab some of the supporting players and a pair of effects guys to provide some background on the production. Bruce Campbell gives an audio interview that explains how he came to be a part of the production, which was something he eagerly sought out because he was such a big fan of Carpenter and Escape from New York. Most of the interview is spent recounting the time he spent with effects maestro Rick Baker, whose elaborate applications took six hours to affix.
The rest of the interviews are on-screen, starting with Stacy Keach’s recollection of his collaborations with Carpenter, going back to his appearance in Body Bags. He offers some interesting tidbits here and there about his character in L.A., such as his decision to have Mallory tend to a cactus. Peter Jason’s interview runs the longest as he recounts his decision to become an actor and shares some fun on-set anecdotes (it turns out one of the urchins in the L.A. detention center is Wyatt Russell himself). He’s lively and engaging throughout, particularly during a long aside about the time he found himself doing all sorts of grunt work on Village of the Damned, which dissuaded him from wanting to be a producer. Corraface discusses the chain of events that led him to scoring the role of Cuervo, as he read the script and insisted upon getting a shot at it. He also discusses his breakthrough playing the title role in Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, which is nice if there are any fans of that movie since it’s yet to make it to DVD, let alone Blu-ray.
Finally, Scream taps representatives from both sides of the effects aisle in James McPherson, who specialized on the practical work, and David Jones, who supervised the digital aspects. The latter is probably of most interest, just because he does address the elephant in the room by acknowledging that the infamous CGI is not exactly great. However, he also insists that this is the best they could do at the time, and even this short anecdote reveals that everyone involved really did put their heart into this. It’s really kind of a shame that this has become so intertwined in the film’s legacy, if only because it’s such a minor nitpick in the grand scheme of things. McPherson’s interview is pretty informative too, even if it does meander off into a random anecdote where the effects and wardrobe crews got their wires crossed about the details of a shoot.
As has been the case with most of Scream’s recent releases, each participant answers similar questions, including their thoughts on Carpenter and the legacy of the film itself. Happily, everyone involved agrees that Carpenter is a consummate professional, and they remain proud of their involvement on the film, with many of the interviewees noting that maybe the world just wasn’t ready for its wacked-out, satirical bent.
Carpenter isn’t on-screen to agree here, but he did weigh in on the subject in a 2015 interview, where he insisted that we should “give it a few more years” because “Escape from L.A. is better than the first movie.” In fact, it’s “ten times better” because it’s “more mature” and has “a lot more to it.” “You’ve got to give me a little while,” he continues. “People will say, you know, ‘what was wrong with me?’” So don’t just take it from me—take it from the man himself and give Escape from L.A. another shot because it at least deserves that much.
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