Fifteen Years Later: Escape from L.A.
August 24, 2011
This month saw the passing of the fifteen-year anniversary of the release of John Carpenter’s oft-derided Escape from L.A., and though it is not unsurprising that such an auspicious occasion would go largely unheralded both in the press and in the blogosphere, I still feel the need to stick up for this seemingly lost little gem. Given the absurd, satirical nature of the piece, I would have expected it to garner some level of cult status, even if it were among the annoying so-bad-its-good sect. From what I can tell, it hasn’t, and though it was given a blu-ray release last year, it is telling that Universal never bothered to update the original DVD with an anamorphic transfer, a clear sign of a studio having no faith in a product whatsoever if there ever was one.
And why should they? Escape from L.A. was a devastating critical and, more importantly, commercial failure in a summer that yielded a shocking number of big successes. I tend to think of the summer of 1996 as the beginning of the modern blockbuster period. Take a look at the list of films being released and you’ll find Twister, Mission: Impossible, The Rock, Eraser, The Nutty Professor, Independence Day, Courage Under Fire, and A Time to Kill, along with a number of smaller successes (and a couple of failures). Virtually every week from May 10th forward saw some hopeful, effects-laden blockbuster released. This was, in my mind, the beginning of the ‘tentpole every week’ trend that has been the way of Hollywood ever since, depending more and more on opening weekend box office numbers and not even bothering with sleepers or even a second week on the top. Failures were to be written off, and hopes of making up the loss in home video/DVD sales weren’t a major factor yet. Also look at the big hits of the summer and you’ll find a rather uniform straight-forwardness in their presentation and, in action films, seriousness in tone. There were quips in The Rock, but the situation itself was tackled with a straight face. Escape from L.A., on the other hand, plays like a joking send-up – though one thankfully free of out-and-out winks to the audience – and that’s not what larger audiences tend to embrace.
A follow up to Escape from New York, L.A. sees the titular city separated from the mainland after a devastating earthquake. Having predicted the disaster and attributed it to God’s wrath, a fundamentalist Christian is elected president and uses his powers to create new moral laws. There is no smoking, alcohol, swearing, sex outside of marriage, red meat, and so on. Offenders are deported to Los Angeles (if they choose not to repent and take the electric chair) where roaming gangs have taken over and created a debauched, violent society. A left-wing revolutionary, Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface) has won over the President’s daughter (no need to kidnap when California can produce a Patty Hearst), who has stolen a top-secret weapon from the government. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is offered a pardon from his crimes if he can retrieve the weapon. He’s also dosed with a toxin that will kill him in ten hours if he doesn’t receive the antidote. Those familiar with the original will see that this is less a sequel to original than it is a straight-up remake transplanted to another location (he also gets shot in the leg, supporting characters are casually blown up in an escape, and there’s even a bait-and-switch ending). This, I think, is a purposeful tactic for a few reasons, the most obvious of which is to contrast New York and Los Angeles. For instance, rather than a simple death match in a ring with a burly henchman, Snake is forced to play basketball in the (of course) Coliseum, where failure to score ten points in the allotted time leads to execution by gunfire (in one of my favourite gags, a recently executed man is dragged off the court, followed by towel boys who wipe up the blood).
The most obvious jokes in the movie come from the string of twisted riffs on LA culture. Beverly Hills is home to plastic surgery grotesques who kidnap passersby to mine for spare parts, Peter Fonda turns up as a hippy surfer (wearing a Security poncho no-doubt nicked from a concert), the sleazy Maps-to-the-Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi) offering a map to LA, and Pam Grier is a drag queen gang leader. These are ramped up clichés, of course, as virtually everything in this film is. The government is the nightmare of the left wing – a superstitious theocracy that will enforce the most brutal of punishments to maintain a set of strict morals so as not to offend God. Likewise, LA is presented as the extreme fever dream of right-wing paranoia, where anything-goes culture leads to debauchery, violence, and is mostly populated by minorities.
Snake himself is a cliché, as he was in the first film. He’s a lone gunman in the mold of Leone westerns, here even given an old-fashioned quick draw duel. Instead of leaping from a horse onto a train and jumping from car to car, he rides a motorcycle onto the bed of a truck where he proceeds to move from vehicle to vehicle in a caravan by leaping from one hood to another, shooting bad guys every step of the way. These movie tropes ramped up to absurd extremes function as a kind of meta-commentary on the nature of Hollywood and its sequels. New York was made on a low budget when Carpenter was still firmly operating as an independent outside of the system. He followed his early 80s successes with a string of failures, including a disastrous attempt to work directly for a studio with Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and in a lot of ways Escape from L.A. feels like a comment on the fickle and infuriating demands of the West Coast powers-that-be. New York itself is often seen as an independent force for art outside of the control of the studios, while Los Angeles is the bloated belly of the beast. For Hollywood, a sequel is usually a cash-in rehash that repeats the successful formula of the original, only bigger. L.A. takes these aspects to a ludicrous extreme. After being shot in the leg, Snake finds himself in a canyon where Fonda’s hippy is about to surf a tsunami. Snake grabs a board and after the briefest of tutorials, manages to ride the wave and leap off the board onto the back of the convertible of the man he’s after who happens to be driving parallel to the canyon. It’s gloriously over-the-top in its reckless abandon of any and all credibility. The final action sequence involves Snake hang-gliding into the center of The Happy Kingdom – which is the famous Hill Valley set redressed – throwing grenades and mowing down untold numbers of machine-gun toting enemy soldiers. Even in smaller ways, Carpenter parodies the laziness of Hollywood storytelling. Taslima (Valeria Golino) shows up to provide some exposition, and once she’s served her purpose, a random bullet from some unidentified, unconnected shooter helpfully kills her off. Scene after scene features these kinds of gags, from the countdown clock to the recovery of a lost jacket, but the film crucially never lets the characters in on the joke, because Carpenter knows that smugness would ruin the gag.
For whatever reason, the cult following that managed to reclaim another 1996 flop, Mars Attacks, has failed to do so with Escape from L.A., but I hope it will one day. It should be appreciated as one of the better satires of the 90s. Fifteen years later, as the country is more and more politically divided into Right and Left, and Hollywood blockbusters – and their endless sequels and remakes – continue to become more bloated and ridiculous while also taking themselves more seriously than ever, Escape from L.A. manages to remain oddly relevant. If you can see past the bad special effects (which didn’t look any better back then), you’ll find that the film is worth more than just a slice of campy cheese. It’s filled with the kind of madcap energy that only a frustrated outsider can give.