Escape From L.A. (1996)

D: John Carpenter
S: Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi

Some inventive characters and suitably bleak production design cannot save John Carpenter's depressing attempt to return to the zeitgeist of cyberpunk popularised in his 1981 sci-fi cult classic (which wasn't really that great in the first place). Resurrecting the sociopathic miscreant Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) from his uncertain future at the climax of Escape From New York, this film opportunistically picks up his fragmented story years later and posits that he's now a conscientious objector in a politically-correct nightmare America, about to be imprisoned or executed yet again unless he takes the shady deal offered to him by the State. Last time it was to rescue the President from the Island-Prison of Manhattan, this time it's to recover a doomsday device in the possession of the President's flaky daughter, who has hitched up with a Che Guevara-type revolutionary hanging out in the earthquake-devastated and Governmentally isolated L.A. (now, conveniently, an Island). Cue a series of picaresque encounters with various weirdoes and assorted violent killers, eventually leading to a muted confrontation with the villains which spirals off into a further series of twists and turns which eventually bring you to the end of the movie (and the most predictable twist of all, with a tagged-on New Age 'back-to-the-earth' message).

It's all pretty aimless, and has neither the wit nor the darkness of its predecessor. But even on its own terms, there's not much to hang onto here. Snake is an enjoyable enough character, but he's given little chance to grow and change (obviously), making him even more one-dimensional than last time. Russell clearly enjoys himself, and sneers convincingly, but he's more tongue-in-cheek than he needs to be and the result is simply neither believable nor interesting. As to the rest, Steve Buscemi does an amusing turn as a sneaky, snivelling turncoat in his usual mould and Peter Fonda (!) has a weird cameo as a spaced-out surfer.

There are plenty of ideas in there, and the denizens of L.A. are suitably strange and satirical (including the plastic-surgery junkies who steal skin and body parts to sustain themselves), but the script seems to have been conceived purely on just how many of these little jokes and barbs writers Carpenter, Russell and Debra Hill could insert. There is no reason to care for anyone, and one never feels involved in the story. The result is that you're left with pyrotechnics and jokes, and even diehard Carpenter fans (of which there must be precious few at this stage) will feel just a little taken for granted.

It does once again raise the admittedly tired question of just what happened to John Carpenter, who seemed unable to do wrong twenty years ago and has gone totally awry so many times since (Christine, Village of the Damned, Memoirs of an Invisible Man). Although he occasionally generates cult followings and some critical interest (The Thing, They Live, In the Mouth of Madness), he seems unable to tap the mainstream pulse which once came so easily (Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog). Perhaps it's a matter of having something to say, and Carpenter's pared-down, ultra-lean, affect-engineered movies of the seventies spoke to a generation facing an emotional wasteland. But Escape From L.A. has only hamfisted ironic postmodernism to play with (though political correctness is ripe for a roasting), and the film is so bloated and expensive-looking as to be nothing and express nothing in form or content. In that sense, it probably is an accurate portrait of the time in which it is made, but that is little comfort to the audience, who cannot but feel insulted and find themselves compelled to wish Snake goes to ground and stays there from now on.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.