The Savage Stack: JOHN CARPENTER’S ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996)

This week, Jacob takes a second look at Carpenter's vastly undervalued ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK sequel.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The sixteenth entry into this unbroken backlog is John Carpenter’s years-in-the-making Snake Plissken sequel, Escape From L.A....

Upon being asked about the political prescience of both They Live and Escape From L.A., John Carpenter simply replied that he followed his instincts. He wrote what he felt, and had no idea that the stories he was constructing would have any sort of social relevance as time trudged on. Watching Escape From L.A. in 2016 is like witnessing a man stare into a crystal ball, while simultaneously exorcising the middle age white dude jokes about Los Angeles that’d been brewing in Carpenter’s brain for over two decades while working within its most infamous industry. Sure, the anamorphic auteur was picking low hanging fruit when it came to two-faced talent agents and a plastic surgery obsessed society that’s irrationally terrified of growing old like normal folks. Yet twenty years on, the anti-authoritarian attitude that pervaded Carpenter’s angriest pictures has aged like a fine wine. For the newly minted Trump era, Snake Plissken facing off against a deportation obsessed dictator trying to purify his “moral America” plays all too well.

To be honest, it’s totally easy to understand why fans of Carpenter’s ’81 all-timer, Escape From New York, have been disappointed since the day L.A. dropped. While the movie is irrefutably a sequel, the picture still plays as a near beat for beat rehash of familiar plot points. It’s 2013. The President (Cliff Robertson, doing Pat Robertson from behind a podium) has lost a mysterious black box on Los Angeles Island (there was a natural disaster, just roll with it), where his country’s undesirables are now shipped off to fend for themselves. Seems his daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), jumped ship from Air Force Three and took the black box to her new brainwashing beau, Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface, conspicuously costumed to resemble Che Guevara), so that he may dismantle the United States and lead a revolution against its dogmatic way of life. Snake’s detained by Commander Malloy (Stacy Keach, admirably standing in for Lee Van Cleef) and given a mission: he must man a mini submarine to the Island of Angels, retrieve the box and kill the girl, or a designer virus will end him in less than ten hours. Being the consummate badass, Plissken accepts this déjà vu-inducing task, vowing to kill everyone involved in its engineering upon his return. The lyrics to this dad rock riff have changed, but the old school Western twang remains.

From the movie’s earliest moments, it’s clear Kurt Russell is anything but bored whilst sliding on the black sleeveless uniform of the cyclopean S.D. Bob Plissken (reminder to the awful sounding remake’s producers: we already know his first name). After all, Russell had been pushing Carpenter to make the movie since the mid '80s (’85 to be exact, when the filmmaker was unsure about a “too campy” script). The matinee idol slips into Snake’s monosyllabic skin effortlessly, hissing his dialogue with the kind of demented Duke Wayne cadence we’ve come to know and love. The last fifteen years had been kind to Russell, and it’s fun to fall right back into Plissken’s rebellious groove, as he stumbles upon, befriends and challenges a legion of colorful caricatures. That’s possibly the most amazing aspect of Russell’s long career as an action star: he’s never tumbled into the self-parody of other '80s bullet slingers. Even roles like Stuntman Mike (Death Proof), Mr. Nobody (the Fast & Furious franchise), and Sheriff Hunt (Bone Tomahawk) have found ways to comment on his maturation without ever poking fun. Maybe it’s this self-awareness that helped him pen the script with Carpenter and Debra Hill (for Russell’s first and only screenwriting credit): he wanted to give audiences one last go ‘round with Snake before he got too old to sport the eye-patch again.

Time had not been as kind to John Carpenter, who was experiencing a career nadir in the early to mid '90s. The previous year saw him producing his worst picture (Village of the Damned) immediately after directing what would turn out to be his only great film of the decade (In the Mouth of Madness). Carpenter himself has said that his studio fill-in job, Memoirs of an Invisible Man (where he replaced Ivan Reitman after disputes with star Chevy Chase), was a complete wash. According to the director, Warner Bros. was only looking for something “audience friendly and non-challenging”. Body Bags was supposed to be a full series at Showtime before network execs got cold feet and relegated the pilot (which was partially co-directed by Tobe Hooper) to a one-off TV Movie. While it’s certainly unfair to play hindsight armchair psychologist, Snake Plissken appears to have been a retreat to comfort in 1996. Carpenter’s movies never made a lot of money (a fact that’s never been lost on the filmmaker), so this comfort doesn’t necessarily seem driven by financial opportunism. Rather, it was a return to a creatively familial culture, following the cold demands of studio moneymen. Paramount possibly allotted more money than was necessary to bring Escape From L.A. to the big screen, but Russell (who co-produced with Hill) was helping his friend call the shots and make the movie they wanted to make.

While there may not be a character as iconic as Isaac Hayes’ Duke of New York, Snake’s latest adventure brings him into contact with numerous nefarious cartoons. Steve Buscemi’s Maps to the Stars Eddie is a great trade for Harry Dean Stanton’s Brain. Peter Fonda’s hippie surfer, Pipeline, is almost as goofy as Bruce Campbell’s mutated Surgeon General of Beverly Hills. Weirdest of all may be Pam Grier’s transgender gang lord, who could never be sketched with the same devil may care irreverence nowadays (the Woke Brigade would have a field day with this movie). Escape From L.A. may feel unshakably familiar, but that doesn’t mean it’s lazy in the least bit. This is arguably the most fun movie in Carpenter’s entire oeuvre, as he’s clearly just having a ball revisiting the possibilities of this bombed out Hellscape.

The sticking point for many viewers has always been the cheap plasticity of Escape From L.A.. These criticisms aren’t unfounded. The whole of Carpenter and Russell’s passion project is dominated by a back lot anti-reality that can be distracting (especially when married to the director’s ultra wide 2.35 frame). The bombed out blackness of Escape from New York’s East Saint Louis location shooting is replaced by a tacky, fire-lit gaudiness that (possibly inadvertently) ties into the film’s satirical take on Los Angeles. Even in apocalypse, Skid Row owns a haze of cosmetically degenerative sleaze. The SFX are also an eyesore, as the cut-rate CGI didn’t look good in 1996, let alone 2016. Nevertheless, one could argue that the relatively chintzy vibe the movie gives off actually feels at home with the rest of the B-Movie lifer’s essential filmography. Paired with the distinctly irritated tone of an artist who’s always questioned the Powers That Be, Escape From L.A.’s glaring flaws can mostly be forgiven. We’re getting the undiluted fantasies of a creative team who were always limited in resources, but wealthy in genre conceits.

The endings of John Carpenter’s motion pictures have primarily been downbeat, cynical affairs, but Escape From L.A. trades in the director’s usual depressive negativity for a pitch perfect middle finger that impeccably summarizes the movie’s “fuck The Man” ethos. For Snake Plissken, civilization is beyond saving, and it’s time to level the playing field for all. When viewed in conjunction with They Live, it’s undeniable that Carpenter was through with the trivial frivolity of high society and the hidden puppet masters who pull the strings in order to keep the status quo intact. The old order has to be overthrown, and it makes little difference if it’s a rogue criminal who leads the charge. There’s something wholly inspiring, if slightly silly, about these sentiments that ring truer than ever as Barack Obama exits the White House and makes way for a President who has openly embraced the backing of hate groups and a religious subsection that wants to rob many of their God-given rights. We need antiheroes like Snake Plissken now more than ever; ruthless motherfuckers who were once part of the elite before being betrayed by their country, leaving them cold, jaded and looking to smash the system to pieces. Reset the Doomsday Clock to midnight and toss these pompous pigs out on their asses, screaming in agony as those they’ve hurt are finally allowed to take revenge and drag them through the streets by their silk ties. However, even this dystopian fantasy seems mild in comparison to our current political predicament. We no longer need to escape from New York or L.A., but America itself.

Escape From L.A. is available now on DVD/Blu-ray and to stream via Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu.

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