Escape From LA: Gloriously John Carpenter
On the Eve of the 20th Anniversary of Escape from LA, Adam takes a look back at the sequel that may have been wrongly dubbed a “misfire”.
John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, from opening frame to closing title, is as perfect a sci-fi actioner as has ever been created. Compact, thrilling, economical, funny, dangerous, articulate, and most- of-all, completely and utter awesome. Snake Plissken as played by Kurt Russell is The Man with No Name, Yojimbo, that is to say he was our (anti)hero for the 1980s. Plissken stood defiantly against everything that would come to be the 1980’s ideal. The production design was as rotten to the core as most of the major metropolitan areas were at the time (Chicago, New York, L.A., and Detroit all had their “demilitarized zones”). The direction was on par with Leone’s complete control of the medium embodied in Once Upon a Time in America. The score was as iconic as any by Ennio Morricone.
All the touchstones that made Escape from New York what it is, Escape from L.A. was missing. The movie is more a meta-commentary on sequels and Los Angeles image-driven culture. To call Escape from L.A. an action film, a sci-fi film, or a dystopian thriller would be doing it a major disservice. The film is none of those things but does have specific elements that are associated with those genres.
What is Escape from L.A. if not pigeon-holed into those genres?
What does it propose to do as a film?
Why did everyone reject the film outright?
Why do people still reject the film to this day?
Escape from L.A. is a blisteringly-moronic comic parody of Escape from New York. Carpenter had none of the means needed to create the “true sequel” he and Russell envisioned. Instead, the director created a film that was a giant middle finger to the town that continually abused him and had turned sequels into a business enterprise. Taken on its own terms as a mockery of this style of big budget filmmaking, Escape from L.A. works beautifully. The movie plays as though directed by Edgar Wright circa 2011 post-Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
All of the conventions of a sequel are missing here: bigger scale, punchier one-liners, stakes played out on a grander scale, similar villains, and plot points mimicking the original. If taken as a true sequel, the movie fails. There is no heft to the proceedings. The stakes don’t matter. Everything seems to be all for nigh. Even though the fate of the world is on the table, the story never generates any real tension. The original had a ticking clock. Snake had less than twenty-four hours to find the president or he would be killed by micro-explosives planted in his neck. Escape from L.A. has none of the weight of the original.
At first glance an audience would think that Carpenter was off his game. Not the case. Nothing is meant to be taken seriously. Nothing matters in this film. Carpenter hates the idea of a sequel to Escape from New York as much as an audience member does watching it. This is the director spitting in the eye of the establishment as he had with his original fifteen years earlier. Rather than a sequel, he created a remake/sequel the way that Sam Raimi had ten years prior with Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. Evil Dead 2 was an improvement on all fronts to the original. Escape from L.A. is a carbon copy of Escape from New York, only taking place on the opposite coast and made with decidedly less quality.
The original Escape was the film equivalent of a punk rock album: a motion picture middle finger to the establishment and the rise of Reagan-Era conservative politics. Unlike an earlier Carpenter film, They Live, where subtext is text, in both Escape from New York and its sequel the subtext is subtext. Escape from New York is genuine. Carpenter loves Snake Plissken, loves the world he’s created. Escape from L.A. is snarky, in-your-face stupid. Carpenter turns his dislike of the return of Plissken into a sort of entropy of character. What was once an avatar, for both Carpenter and Kurt Russell, is forced to conform to an era that the hero was never built for — the mushy, soft jokey late 90s.
Rather than make a political statement, Escape from L.A. makes a statement about sequels and the culture of Los Angeles. The sequel feels almost beat for beat like the original, a “Greatest Hits” compilation with a “few new songs” thrown in. The plots are identical. A Presidential airplane is shot down over a prison city. Plissken is brought in by the warden with an offer: bring back presidential secrets and earn his freedom. The only thing that has changed is the location and the people Plissken interacts with have an L.A.-esque flavor to them. Of course, there’s the plastic surgeon cult leader. The gang leader must be Hispanic (modeled after Zach De la Rocha, lead singer of Rage Against the Machine). We have a transvestite revolutionary freedom fighter (played by Pam Grier no less) and Steve Buscemi playing Steve Buscemi in a pork pie hat.
In 1996, this film was designed to be rejected. Audiences were too close to see the point. There was too much public anticipation to embrace something so angry, so gleefully stupid, so readily willing to burn down the house that Snake built… something so Carpenter-esque. This wasn’t simply Carpenter playing with the expectations of normal audiences. This is the director confounding film geek demands. Everyone rejected Escape from L.A. en mass. Looking back on the film, not with an ironic view, but as a societal commentary/evisceration by Carpenter, it works.
Three years prior, Carpenter tested the waters of this sort of meta-commentary about genre with In the Mouth of Madness. Though not as blatant an attack on film geeks or Geek Culture in general, it does have its sly nods to the hyperbolic nature of fandom. In the film anyone who reads fictional author Sutter Cane’s latest work goes insane or is engulfed into the work of the book.
Carpenter knew audiences would begin to make a cult out of genre filmmaking. In the Mouth of Madness tackles that very theme. Though Carpenter in 1994 had not seen that audiences would want nothing more than for the progenitors of the genre’s greatest hits to just recycle the same stories over and over again. “Just play the hits”, you can almost hear seething through social media nowadays.
Carpenter had figured out audiences at large by 1996. They want nothing more than their genre stories with a new shiny top coat. The geek masses venture no further than watching the original creations from their childhood, preciously being retold and retooled for their consumption. The writing was on the wall. Audiences would eventually hold dear what was once disposable. Fans clamoring on press tours for sequels to Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China probably sped up the process. Carpenter, a man who suffers no fools, was “fed up” with his fan base wanting nothing new from him.
The director gave them everything they wanted, both barrels. Escape from L.A. gave audiences exactly what they expected, a S-E-Q-U-E-L. The film provided what was required of a next chapter in a “series”. Snake Plissken as the icon, doing the impossible. The impossible being and not limited to, surfing the Narrows (the L.A River. for those not from L.A.) with Peter Fonda, hitting a half-court shot ala Steph Curry, and taking down the entire world with a click of the button.
The story gave you a “newly minted” version of the same characters. Harry Dean Stanton’s duplicitous Brain was traded out for Steve Buccemi’s duplicitous Eddie (in a pork pie, predating hipsterism by seventeen years). Adrienne Barbeau’s buxom Maggie gave rise to Pam Grier’s buxom transvestite freedom fighter Hershey (like the candy bar). Lee Van Cleef and Tom Adkins’s L.A. counterparts are Stacy Keach and Michelle Forbes. Though they are all capable actors, the mere fact the characters are carbon copies of the New York originals put them at a disadvantage.
In spite of these criticisms, the film connects on the level that Carpenter intended. All these deficiencies work for the film, rather than against it. Much in the way that Carpenter lovingly lampooned Wuxia films with Big Trouble in Little China and eviscerated Reagan-Era consumerism in They Live, Escape from L.A. was lampooning our Sequel/Reboot culture. Unfortunately, Escape from L.A. was too early for anyone to truly appreciate or understand its point. Parodies are a product of reflection, and the sequel/reboot movement was still underway.
Carpenter himself has equated the sequel and original to Rio Bravo and El Dorado. During an interview for the magazine Creative Screenwriting, Carpenter said, “Well, give it a few more years. Escape from L.A. is better than the first movie. Ten times better. It’s got more to it. It’s more mature. It’s got a lot more to it. I think people didn’t like it because they felt it was a remake, not a sequel. … I suppose it’s the old question of whether you like Rio Bravo or El Dorado better? They’re essentially the same movie. They both had their strengths and weaknesses.” (c. 04/15/15 w. Erik Bauer http://creativescreenwriting.com/its-always-the-story-the-craft-of-carpenter/)
This may be a way to approach the movie. L.A. and New York are essentially the same film. It may at first seem baffling that Carpenter has said that Escape from L.A. is a better film. It is possible that Carpenter holds affection for Escape from L.A. as it burns everything done in Escape from New York in effigy. Notoriously defiant, it would make complete sense that the director would adore the film that shattered a possible film franchise with glee.
If only more modern filmmakers could be as ballsy as John Carpenter. If only….