Escape from L.A.

(John Carpenter, USA, 1996)


I rush to the defence of a movie that has been reflexly knocked by just about every other reviewer who has gone near it. John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. is the sequel to his terrific Escape from New York (1981). Kurt Russell is back as the amazing Snake Pliskin, and he’s not the only element that gets a re-tread. It is absolutely true that the basic concept – having a major American city as a maximum security prison of the future – as well as many of the specific plot moves are pretty much the same here as in the forerunner. It’s also true that this is just not as good a film as Escape from New York: not as lean or economical, not as exciting.


But I’m sticking with Carpenter, a tremendously talented filmmaker, and I’m sticking up for Escape from L.A.. Carpenter’s original escape tale of Pliskin came in the era of the first three Mad Max films (1979-1985), Blade Runner (1982) and Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982) – it had the post-punk feel of the New Wave pop and fashion subcultures of the time.


In retrospect, it is certainly one of the first postmodern films of the 1980s – in a very specific sense, in that Snake himself is one of the great nihilistic, amoral, anti-heroes of popular ‘80s cinema. When faced with the choice between saving the world and destroying it, Snake will always chose the destruction option – because he doesn’t give a damn about this rotten society that’s never done anything decent for him. Escape from New York revelled in and celebrated the dark, flip humour of such a devil-may-care stance.


In Escape from L.A., Carpenter revisits this merry terrain of je-m’en-foutisme. That attitude is no longer quite the prevalent mood of popular culture in the mid ‘90s, so it carries an untimely (in the Nietzschean sense) kick of provocation.


Carpenter as a storyteller is a strange political beast, seemingly neither of the left nor the right (although, in various times and places, he has been claimed for both sides). On the one hand, his movies are full of a particular type of hippie radicalism, a proud anti-establishment stance – fuelled by all the usual nightmarish conspiracy theories and paranoias about a mind-controlling state apparatus (as in his epoch-defining and Žižek-feeding They Live [1988]).


In Escape from L.A., this pop-political stance expresses itself in terrific satire of a future US President, Adam (played by a glassy-looking Cliff Robertson), who has been elected for life. He’s a moral-majority fascist who will gladly sacrifice his own “seditious daughter” once she has been contaminated by any radical idea. In the style of brutal social comment familiar from Marco Brambilla’s smart and enjoyable Sylvester Stallone vehicle Demolition Man (1993), this fascist future-America is a goody-goody, politically-correct nightmare: no smoking, drinking, extra-marital sex, unorthodox religious beliefs, no subversive philosophies … basically, no fun of any kind.


In this light, there’s a rather touching scene in the anarchic, territorial, punk wilderness section of the city, where Valeria Golino as Taslima gets to say how truly free this hell-hole is – because there, at least, a girl can still wear a fur coat.


But it’s not all good times in the cesspool of wild Los Angeles. Because if Carpenter doesn’t like the establishment, he doesn’t seem to have much regard for the comic-book political alternative – here presented as an insurgent Third World, especially gun-happy Latin American radicals like Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), a dashing if rather violent chap who seduces the president’s daughter (her name, by the way, is Utopia, played by A.J. Langer).


When I look back on Carpenter’s career, I realise that this is the same picture of world politics that he’s been giving us since his sturdy Assault on Precinct 13 (1976 [and nicely remade by Jean-François Richet in 2005]) – where the assorted Chicano street punks trying to lay siege to a jail are scary, and some of the cops inside the prison are pretty creepy, leaving only the anti-social rebels (the Pliskin types) to reluctantly fill the role of Good Guy. Or even, Snake forbid, Hero!


I may be making this film sound more serious than it is – or at least, more serious than it plays. Where Escape from New York was outlandish but still deployed frissons of drama, Escape from L.A. has more the feel of high-class, canny cornball (curiously, the director nixed an early draft of the script, co-written with long-time collaborator Debra Hill and star Russell) because he found it “too light, too campy”). Carpenter finds himself tipping the hat – in a hilarious scene devoted to the mutant “surgical misfits” of Beverly Hills – to the horror hi-jinx of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies (1981, 1987 and 1992), and even to Quentin Tarantino. The Tarantino nod comes in a scene where Pliskin and Pipeline (Peter Fonda) surf down Wiltshire Boulevard, while a ‘60s-style guitar instrumental twangs away on the soundtrack.


Carpenter plays knowingly on the basic unbelievability of the plot – as when handy earthquakes upset the firing aim of whoever is about to kill our fine anti-hero. And he revisits a moment from his horror classic The Thing (1982), giving to Steve Buscemi (as Map to the Stars Eddie), in the middle of a totally fanciful event, the immortal line from that film: “You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding!”


There are certain things that Carpenter has always done well, and he turns them on again here. The music, co-composed by Carpenter and Shirley Walker, is a stirring mélange of million-dollar-riffs and clanking, industrial noises, beautifully keyed to the action. Then there’s the spatial, topographical aspect of Carpenter’s art. So many of his films cover a vast ground, traversing and mapping a labyrinthine terrain. In this case, there’s a special wit to this process, because recognisable fixtures of present-day Los Angeles keep popping up amidst the chaotic ruins of the future – the old Planet of the Apes (1968) finale trick.


Finally, there’s Carpenter’s way with an action clinch: a sudden stand-off, a twist that magically resolves the action … and then the reflective moment afterwards, when the smoke clears and the characters are left standing, smirking and shaking their heads in disbelief, ready with a one-liner quip.


I won’t tell you how things end in Escape from L.A., but I will say that the sight of Pliskin, alone with his cigarette in the dark, is one of the most sublime moments of 1990s cinema.

MORE Carpenter: Ghosts of Mars, Vampires, Village of the Damned, In the Mouth of Madness

© Adrian Martin October 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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