Escape from L.A.
January 18th, 2023
Director: John Carpenter
Release Date: August 9th, 1996
Few films are as unfairly maligned as John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. Produced and released fifteen years after Escape from New York, many people overlooked it as they were either unfamiliar with the source material or simply dismissed it as schlock. It was hardly Carpenter’s fault though, as the film had been through development hell for well over a decade. Kurt Russell, who loved portraying Snake Plissken, assisted with writing the film and was the largest motivating factor to finishing the project. All the hard work and dedication was fruitless from an economic standpoint, however, as the film grossed about half of its budget. Critics tore the film apart, resulting in a 53% approval rating, though Roger Ebert dissented and rated it a 3 ½ out of 4 stars. Some appreciated it for its camp, cynical commentary and well-executed action sequences; others criticized the poor CGI effects, hammy acting and ludicrous plot. My thoughts on the film are that while it doesn’t match the tone and gravity of its predecessor, it still holds up as an enjoyable action movie and solid entry to the series.
The plot of the film is simple and essentially a rewrite of Escape from New York. A large earthquake strikes Southern California and splits Los Angeles from the mainland United States. Instead of rebuilding some of the world’s most expensive real estate, the President declares it a giant penal colony where the nation’s worst criminals are sent. Under this theocratic government he is elected for a life term and rules over the nation with religious authority. As the character Malloy says, “The United States is a no-smoking nation. No smoking, no drinking, no drugs. No women- unless of course you’re married.” What makes this prison different from the Manhattan penal colony is that people deemed “social degenerates” and dissenters of the theocracy are also sent there- forced to live with murderers, rapists, Nazis and terrorists. We see average people attempting to form small communities to protect themselves from the real threats- and individual characters like Taslima are sent there due to being Muslim. This is more sinister than New York where it appears only “real” criminals are sent there. Families are crying at the deportation center and huddling around drum fires inside the L.A. prison- eerily mirroring certain real life events.
Snake Plissken, still the same person from fifteen years before, is made an offer he can't refuse. The President’s daughter Utopia has been groomed by rebel leader Cuervo Jones, who’s operations are based out of L.A. She steals the “Sword of Damocles,” a satellite aiming system that can wipe out electronic usage within certain parameters (aka electromagnetic pulse) and hijacks a plane to get to L.A. and give the device to Cuervo. As insurance, Snake is injected with the “Plutoxin 7” virus which will kill him in 24 hours and the antidote will only be granted if he completes the mission. Begrudgingly, Snake accepts the mission and he gets to L.A. via submarine. He meets a variety of characters along the way, notably “Map to The Stars” Eddie ( Steve Buscemi) and Pipeline (Peter Fonda) who assist him in locating Cuervo and Utopia, though we find out Eddie is playing both sides.
The city itself is dark, grim and ultra violent- various gangs and factions fight each other constantly, and groups such as Nazis thrive in the anarchy. Notoriously, Snake and his newly found friend Taslima are kidnapped by the “General Surgeon of Beverly Hills,” portrayed by the always hilarious and hammy Bruce Campbell. He captures people to use as canvases for plastic surgery; we briefly see his victims, who are horribly disfigured and in agonizing pain. I appreciate the horror elements of the film; while there were a few minor elements in New York, I feel that L.A. plays this up more. There is another famous scene where Snake is captured by Cuervo and forced to play a game in which he has to score a certain amount of basketball shots. This game is nearly impossible and results in the gruesome execution of other inmates, but Snake is able to score at the last minute with a one-handed full court shot. Fun fact: Kurt Russell was able to pull off the shot without the use of special effects.
Eventually Snake is able to steal the Sword of Damocles, barely making it back to safety but then finding out the Plutoxin 7 virus is just a rapid onset cold. He’s multiple steps ahead of the backstabbing government, however, when he is revealed to be a hologram being broadcast from a different location. He sets the weapon to neutralize the entire planet’s electrical grid, and plunges the world back into the dark ages. The film ends on a grim note, with Snake conveniently finding a pack of American Spirits and lighting one up as the credits roll.
Most of the criticism has been aimed at the poorly aged computer generated effects, which somehow looked worse than the pseudo-computer graphics of the first film (though, it was revealed decades later from James Cameron that these were actually conventional effects made to look like computer graphics.) While the CGI effects are indeed bad, there is no denying that when conventional effects are used, they look excellent. Gunshots are loud and bright, likely utilizing magnesium blanks for extra effect, and the set design looks appropriately apocalyptic. There is of course the infamous “surfing scene” which is comical and reminiscent of a comic book- and I think I pinpointed why this movie is fun. It feels more like a comic book adapted into an action film- which, for the outlandish scenario, is befitting. I think a lot of fans of the original film didn’t like it because it deviated toward the action aspects and less on the understated creepiness of New York. That is fair- the tone is a bit different, but I wouldn’t say this affects the films watchability or even quality.
What it comes down to is whether you prefer the understated Escape from New York or its glamorous, charismatic sequel. I view both as representing their own cities- New York is quiet and reserved, but also more raw and authentic. L.A. is loud, boisterous, fun and technically superior in a superficial manner. However, its script is heavily derivative of the original and not much has been built on top of the series’ canon. Regardless, it’s a very fun and enjoyable popcorn flick and arguably the most watchable of the two films. The comedic element is also played up more- “Map to the Stars” Eddie, for example, is smarmy and annoying but provides some humorous lines. Another funny scene is when Snake is confronted by a Nazi (played by Robert Carradine,) and Snake blows him away with his assault rifle. Then the “Bangkok Rules” standoff where Snake is able to fool a group of henchmen into a quick draw game. In some ways, L.A. reveals Snake’s personality more- he can be funny, caring and merciful. New York generally showed him as cold blooded, brutally selfish and even arrogant. Though in both, Snake definitely has gallows humor and isn’t afraid to make controversial jokes.
Whether you have seen New York first or not, I highly recommend checking out Escape from L.A. if you want an action packed, fun 90’s movie. I put it up there with Speed, Lethal Weapon 3 and Waterworld for underrated 90’s action guilty pleasures.
P.S. This movie has a banging soundtrack too, with songs by White Zombie, Tool and Sugar Ray.