Escape from L.A.

Escape from LASynopsis: Snake is Back

The man with the patch is back. Call him Snake. Kurt Russell rejoins filmmakers John Carpenter and Debra Hill to do to the Big Orange what they did to the Big Apple in Escape From New York – with even more futuristic thrills and slam-bang action!

Into the 9.6-quaked Los Angeles of 2013 comes Snake Plissken (Russell). His job: wade through L.A.’s ruined landmarks to retrieve a doomsday device. Don’t miss the excitement as Snake surfs Wilshire Blvd., shoots hoops at the Coliseum, dive bombs the Happy Kingdom theme park, and mixes it up with a wild assortment of friends, fiends and foes (Stacy Keach, Steve Buscemi, Petter Fonda, George Corraface, Cliff Robertson, Pam Grier and more).

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Escape from L.A. 5.5

eyelights: the socio-political satire.
eyesores: its déjà vu quality. the cgi. the lighting. its kitsch quality. Kurt Russell’s performance.

“The United States is a no-smoking nation. No smoking, no drinking, no drugs. No women – unless of course you’re married. No guns, no foul language… no red meat.”

“Land of the free.”

1983’s ‘Escape from New York‘ was a box office hit. Soon thereafter, plans were drawn for a follow-up. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the sequel would be stuck production hell for over ten years, culminating with the 1996 release of ‘Escape from L.A.’.

It was a box office bomb, barely recouping half of its budget. I still remember an excerpt of it being shown on a music video show days before its release date: the host was rolling her eyes at it and talking trash. Admittedly, the sequence she showed us was pretty awful.

I never intended to see it.

However, a few years ago, I decided to finally get myself a copy of the original on DVD, when the local chain was selling the special edition 2DVD set for a song. Being a completist, I decided to track down a copy of the sequel and give it a chance once and for all.

Peeeeeyew! Did that ever stink! It was pretty much the same movie, but relocated to Los Angeles. Except that it was dumbed down (if you can imagine that) and cheesy. It got shelved faster than you can say “Snake Plisken”, with no plan to ever revisit it.

Fast forward six years, and we finally decided to blurb ‘Escape from New York’ for TCE (partly due to ‘The Thing‘ and partly because of the upcoming post-apocalypse series of blurbs that we’ll be doing). Naturally, this means warning readers about its lesser twin.

So, what’s so deeply wrong with ‘Escape from L.A.’?

First off, it’s pretty much the same movie: In 1998, Los Angeles is separated from the mainland by a devastating earthquake. A new President, a right wing religious zealot, declares L.A. a city of sin and decides to have all sinners stripped of their citizenship and deported there.

Things get complicated when the President’s daughter, under the influence of revolutionary Cuervo Jones, steals the control unit to a satellite system that can shut down all electronics within its reach and defects to the other camp. She has become a serious security risk.

Enter Snake Plissken.

Plissken, who has long been a wanted man (despite his rescue of the President in 1997) has finally been caught by the authorities. He is coerced into going into L.A. to locate the President’s daughter and retrieve the control unit. His motivation: a toxin that gives him only 10 hours to live.

On paper, ‘Escape from L.A.’ may be repetitive, but it doesn’t seem so bad. In fact, after reading the Plot entry on the ‘EFLA’ wiki page, I could hardly see its issues – such is the power of editing. But the entry mostly described the setting, adding details that are ambiguous in the film.

It also trims down Plissken’s adventures on L.A. Island to two short paragraphs, even though they take up 80 minutes of the 100-minute picture. And it doesn’t highlight the campiness of ‘EFLA’, which has been dialled up to a degree that makes it hard to take it seriously.

In fact, it is said that one of the reasons why John Carpenter wasn’t that enthused about the project in its earliest stages was because the script was too light, too campy. And that’s before he co-wrote this particular script with star Kurt Russell and producer Debra Hill. Ouch.

I can barely imagine what that script was like initially.

‘Escape from L.A.’ goes for the jugular right from the start, with histrionics about a future theocratic police state. It tells us that a Federal Police Force has been established, and that the new President was able to amend the Constitution to have a permanent mandate.

Most hilarious of all: he moved the White House to his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia.

Seriously.

Then it proceeds to warn us that in this President’s new “Moral America”, all sorts of behaviours and thoughts are outlawed and that sinners can choose to repent and die on the chair or be deported to L.A. Somehow, the deportation centre has children in it. One wonder what they could possibly have done.

This leads me to wonder just how many people were being deported to L.A., if everything and everyone under the sun doesn’t fit this “Moral America”. And why send people to L.A. when you already have a perfectly acceptable prison facility in Manhattan Island? It doesn’t make sense.

It’s all too absurd, too crazy, to be credible. It made wonder if the picture was purposely campy or just poorly conceived. And that’s just in the first five minutes, before we are reintroduced to Snake, who is no longer inspired by Clint Eastwood, but is now a weak caricature of the screen legend.

It would get worse.

Over the course, of the next 90 minutes, we would meet a tribe of plastic surgery freaks, watch Snake be forced to play basketball to save his life, race after a car by surfing on a gnarly wave next to it, hang glide into combat (steering and staying aloft with ease), and so much more.

Then there’s the matter of the contrivances, such as Snake losing his only way out the moment that he arrives, or Peter Fonda and Steve Buscemi’s characters showing up at random but convenient points throughout the picture (much like Ernest Borgnine’s did in the original).

The picture is so full of outrageous coincidences that it becomes risible. Take for instance, a random quake saving Snake’s life or the fact that Buscemi’s character has a recording device that looks exactly like the President’s control unit (try to guess what they’re going to do with it).

Or the fact that Snake stumbles upon an old friend whom he knew years ago in Cleveland – but who so happens to be in Los Angeles now. And whom Snake just so happens to find in all of the countless millions of people there. Wow. Small world. Funny how that happens.

And that’s just the script. Then there are the special effects.

I don’t know if the CGI was the reason this dumb@$$ movie cost so bloody much (reportedly 50 mil), but it wasn’t worth it. The computer effects are worse than amateur video games – just look at the submarine sequence, or the surfing, or the opening earthquake sequence.

Ghastly.

Despite its impressive budget (for the time), ‘Escape from L.A.’ looks and feels cheap. Beyond the CGI, everything looks like a second-tier production, from the sets to the costumes to the make-up. I don’t know if the lighting is at fault, but it felt like a straight-to-video sequel to me.

Even the soundtrack was terrible. They used themes from the original but souped them up and then littered the rest of the soundscape with a bevy of questionably hip artists – including some (ex: Tori Amos) who don’t fit the mood whatsoever. But perhaps the tie-in soundtrack helped finance the picture.

Essentially, ‘Escape from L.A.’ feels more like an alternate, more comic-book-y take on the same story as ‘Escape from New York’ (even if the events that took place in the original are briefly mentioned at one point). I don’t know… maybe they ran out of ideas and carbon-copied the original.

Let’s compare for a moment:

EFNY / EFLA

EFNY theme / EFNY theme redux
Manhattan Island / L.A. Island
Tape recording featuring peace initiative / Control unit capable of incapacitating countries
Kidnapped President / Brainwashed President’s daughter
New York Police Commissioner Bob Hauk / Cmdr. Malloy
Snake Plissken / Snake Plissken
Microscopic explosives / Plutoxin 7 virus
Stealth glider / Stealth submarine
Gang leader villain / Revolutionary leader villain
Pimped-out car with chandeliers / Pimped-out car with dolls’ heads
Harry Dean Stanton as turncoat / Buscemi as turncoat
Ernest Borgnine as ally / Peter Fonda as ally
Snake takes an arrow in the leg / Snake takes a bullet in leg.
Snake destroys the tape at the end / Snake activates the control unit at the end.

I’m sure the list goes on and on…

And yet, even though it’s arguably the same movie, but goofier and on a slightly larger scale, it’s the lesser of the two. By far. More isn’t always more, as we all know, and I suspect that the picture would only have been a success if made on less cash; fans of ‘EFNY’ would have flocked anyway.

But, by banking that a bigger budget would make it a bigger deal, the filmmakers failed to recognize that the original picture is mostly regarded as a cult classic, and that ‘Escape from L.A.’ wouldn’t find a broader audience. And when it bombed, plans for a third entry died.

Because, yes, there was an even campier sequel in the works: ‘Escape from Earth’.

“You’d better hope I don’t make it back!”

You tell ’em, Snake!

Date of viewing: February 17, 2015

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