A cartoonish, cheesy and surprisingly campy apocalyptic actioner, “John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A.” is spiked with a number of funny and anarchic ideas, but doesn’t begin to pull them together into a coherent whole. Designed principally to return Kurt Russell’s violence-prone Snake character to the screen after a 15-year layoff and to gain maximum mileage out of the public’s delight in seeing the worst possible fate visited upon SoCal, this serving of sloppy seconds will score its biggest hit with teenage boys. Paramount should look to make a quick getaway with as much B.O. booty as possible from potent openings, as staying power looks meager.
When last seen, Snake was spiriting the U.S. prez out of a New York City that was an armed fortress controlled by convicts and loonies, circa 1998. Westward migration being what it is, by 2013 all the degenerates are in L.A., part of which has broken off from the mainland courtesy of a 9.8 earthquake in the year 2000.
In fact, five-minute expositional prologue is packed with enough juicy info and described incident that one wishes Carpenter had shot that and dispensed with the aftermath. In somewhat facetious fashion, the audience is informed that , in the wake of the quake, the nation’s undesirables have all been sequestered on L.A. Island as a means of purifying the new “moral” United States, which is lorded over by a Gestapo-like U.S. Police Force and ruled by right-wing religious hypocrite Cliff Robertson, who has declared himself President for Life.
But the prexy’s goody-goody daughter has suddenly seen through her old man, absconded with his top-secret “black box” and joined forces with gangster revolutionary Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), who is about to lead a massive uprising of the dispossessed and the merely unwashed against the fascistic Establishment. Former war hero and full-time bad boy Snake Plissken is pulled out of mothballs to retrieve the black box and, while he’s at it, eliminate the president’s turncoat sprig.
Pic’s first sort-of-groovy sequence has Snake being spirited in a mini-submarine from prison to the island. Along the way, he passes just above various familiar, but submerged, freeways and city landmarks, most notably Universal Studios, but the geography underwater makes no more sense than it eventually does above ground. Snake’s odyssey could have been much more amusing had it been specifically rooted on the map.
As it is, upon landing, Snake first meets an old surf bum (Peter Fonda), who lies in wait of the awesome wave he just knows will roll in when another big earthquake hits. When his forecast is fulfilled, Snake is there to ride it in with him, but, like the underwater journey, the trip is too short, and too tacky visually, to make the hoped-for major impact.
Stealing into Hollywood in the most realistic section of the film, Snake maneuvers through assorted skinheads, hookers and leather-clad scenesters in his effort to track down Cuervo, which he must do before some injected poison takes hold in eight hours. He comes close, but is instead captured and taken to the L.A. Coliseum to star in an updated Roman-style life-and-death contest.
This sequence sums up in a nutshell what’s wrong with the picture. To deliver its full conceptual potential, the stadium should have been jammed with 100,000 crazed former Raiders fans clamoring for Snake blood. Instead, what looks to be about 35 bikers hoping for a little beer money are spread thinly around part of the stands. Where is digital magic when we really need it? A great portion of the crowd at the “Ben-Hur” chariot race was an illusion, but no one noticed. Why such a poor turnout here?
After a tough victory in the arena and further skirmishes elsewhere, Snake gets his hands on both the president’s daughter and the black box; latter turns out to be a control mechanism capable of shutting down all electronic power on Earth. After a final confrontation between Snake and the duplicitous president, the fate of the world is left in Snake’s hands, and anarchic ending reps one of the film’s few genuine gratifications.
With eye patch firmly in place and tongue partly in cheek, Russell hoarse-whispers his way through the picture, knocking off a seemingly limitless supply of bad apples along the way. If not for him, this would be a B movie all the way. Effort appears as though it was done very much on the cheap, with the countless matte shots, mock-ups, models, haphazard special effects and dingy lighting schemes bringing to mind the look of late-’60s Euro co-productions. Visually, item is much closer to the 1981 “Escape From New York” than to effects-oriented pics being done today.
Nocturnal setting, uneven tone, abrasive score and only fitfully successful attempts at humor create a generally grim atmosphere, occasionally leavened by goofy ideas and flashes of explosive action. Aside from Russell, no one is onscreen for very long, although appearances of note are put in by Steve Buscemi as Cuervo’s fast-talking, two-faced agent and blaxploitation stalwart Pam Grier, her voice somehow altered to portray a renegade transsexual gang leader.