John Carpenter's Escape From L.A.

on August 01, 2008 by Ray Greene
There's a scene in "Escape From L.A." that neatly encapsulates the central problem of the whole film. Kurt Russell, as 21st-century Clint Eastwood soundalike Snake Plissken, has been strapped into the chassis of a nuclear-powered mini-sub to make his entry onto the earthquake-ravaged "island" of Los Angeles. A veteran of the post-apocalyptic presidential rescue mission depicted in 1981's "Escape From New York," Snake has taken on this new, overly similar assignment out of enlightened self-interest: Evil right-wing president Cliff Robertson put a virus in Snake's bloodstream that will kill him if he doesn't retrieve a stolen doomsday weapon in 10 hours flat.
   Snake nails the sub's throttle to the floor and, as its nuclear core overheats, he's warned by pony-tailed Sgt. Rock wannabe Stacy Keach to slow down--he's risking the mission. "You slow down, asshole," says Snake just before losing control and crashing. "I'm the one who's dying."
   He's not the only one. Writer/director John Carpenter, for one, is dying right there beside him. Carpenter's speed-crazed juggernaut isn't the submarine, though; it's the film itself--a big-budget action epic staged more sloppily and with less attention to detail than the average episode of "Babylon 5."
   Like its predecessor (and like so many of Carpenter's previous films), "Escape From L.A." takes a promising idea and studiously avoids doing anything interesting with it. Who doesn't like the idea of seeing Hollywood landmarks like the Capitol Records building and the Hollywood sign reduced to flaming rubble? Who wouldn't get a perverse kick out of a movie that stages its big final gun battle in the ruins of Disneyland, or a flick that converts the L.A. Coliseum into a great, open-air chamber of death worthy of its similar namesake in ancient Rome?
   It all sounds quite interesting, but don't be fooled: Carpenter's is a tourist's-eye view of Los Angeles, as seen from the windows of a chartered bus. Like the overripe Big Apple of "Escape From New York," the ravaged Los Angeles of "Escape From L.A." is just something Snake passes through in the course of a pedestrian action movie. The Disneyland scenes offer useful illustration: Despite all the weird architectural possibilities inherent in the location, Carpenter groups his bad guys in an open square, then has Russell and some temporary allies swoop down on them in hanggliders, picking them off one by one. Every machine gun-toting man on the ground has a clean shot at Snake, and it would seem to be virtually impossible to return fire and pilot a hangglider simultaneously. But it's just a movie, man. It only has to look cool--it doesn't have to make sense.
   "Escape From L.A." is true to the spirit of the original in at least two respects: the embarrassing performances from down-and-out veterans (for "New York's" over-acting cabbie Ernest Borgnine, substitute Peter Fonda in a surfer-guy cameo that can only be described as humiliating), plus the uneasy coupling of crypto-radical politics with crypto-fascism. Maybe Carpenter thinks it's just showing balance to attack American rightwingers as Orwellian dictators while casting a Che Guevara lookalike as his central bad guy on the island of L.A., or to warn of creeping middle-class conformity while cheekily using an anti-U.S. uprising of the entire Third World as his movie's "ticking clock." The result, though, is ideological chaos, made that much more obnoxious by the uneasy suspicion that the filmmakers think they've somehow elevated "Escape From L.A.'s" general cheesiness by marbling hidden messages into its shaky futuristic architecture. A Rorschach test would be more coherent, and it might even be more fun.
   Though "Escape From L.A." may do some business among the less discerning of the late-summer action crowd, the real disaster of this post-apocalyptic nightmare come to life happened behind the camera. That noise you hear isn't an explosion; it's the sound of a great science fiction opportunity, being blown sky-high. Starring Kurt Russell, Stacy Keach and Steve Buscemi. Directed by John Carpenter. Written by John Carpenter & Debra Hill & Kurt Russell. Produced by Debra Hill and Kurt Russell. A Paramount release. Action. Rated R
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