Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1996)

18. Escape from L.A

20 years later sequels are a mixed proposition. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Even though “Escape from New York” was a sizable international hit, it wasn’t swept up in the eighties’ wave of action movie sequels. In 1996, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell saw fit to rectify that, bringing Snake back for another adventure. It’s hard to say how much of this was audience demand, how much was Carpenter’s desire to revisit a previous hit, or how much Russell wanted to play a legit bad ass again. Considering Kurt co-wrote and co-produce, you can’t help but wonder if “Escape from L.A.” was greenlit partially to serve the star’s ego.

The film is frequently criticized for being a partial remake of the first film. The base outline is the same. Snake is summoned by the U.S. government to go into a crime-infested metropolis, in order to rescue a MacGuffin. The setting, object of rescue, and surrounding details are different but the story is largely recycled.

However, this honestly doesn’t bother me much. “Escape from L.A.” is a lot goofier then it’s predecessor, which winds up making it more fun. Los Angeles has a lot more color then New York, the sequel has a much bigger budget, and the film seems to delight in decimating famous L.A. landmarks. The Hollywood sign is set ablaze, the Capitol Records building is collapsed, and even Disneyland has been reduced to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The city is populated with colorful characters played by a great cast of actors. The film is packed with action, much of it straining the line between campy and genuinely bad ass. While I understand why some fans of the first film were disappointed, as somebody who is lukewarm on the original, I found a lot to like here.

The film’s best attribute is its world-building. America has changed a lot in-between part one’s 1998 and part two’s 2013. A massive earthquake has turned Los Angeles into an island. A religious fanatic president has turned America into a true dystopia, enforcing draconian laws and executing/exiling “undesirables” to the island. The world is on the brink of war, with several countries very close to invading the U.S. Carpenter is employing a similar brand of satire he used in “They Live.” Once again, politicians are in his sights, particularly taking target at the religious right. I maintain that J.C. predicted George W. Bush with this film, as Cliff Robertson’s unnamed President seems to resemble our 43rd, in beliefs, personality, and appearance.

That stuff is awesome. What I take issue with is the sloppy screenplay. The first movie was focused, with Snake after a clear goal, acquiring allies and enemies along the way. The sequel seems to be satisfied with having him wander around L.A., encountering a bunch of different people. Most of them end up having nothing but the most superficial effect on the story. Sometimes it seems to be a deliberate subversion. Snake rescues a girl, has a romantic dialogue with her, seeming to set up her up as his primary love interest. She dies in the next scene. However, a lot of it is just sloppy writing. In order to squeeze as many wacky characters in as possible, we have a hero just marching from set-piece and encounter. After a strong start, the pacing drags in the middle before a decent ending supplies some much-needed momentum.

Even if they aren't well used, the supporting cast is awesome. Steve Buscemi is the most memorable, as a Hollywood conman, just looking to make a buck. He switches alliances with ease and somehow avoids getting killed. He’s like an evil version of Ernest Borgnine’s Cabbie from the first film. Buscemi is having a ball and is massively entertaining. Cliff Robertson is both hilarious and disgusting as the vile president. Pam Grier has the odd distinction of playing a trans-gender man here. Pam is tough, convincing, and kicks some butt. Peter Fonda, naturally, plays a burnt-out hippy surfer dude. While the character is one of the most absurd things in the movie, Fonda is fun to watch, having a ball parodying his own public persona.

The biggest sin the film commits is wasting Bruce Campbell in a bit part. While the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills certainly appears to be an interesting character and Bruce seems to be having a good time hamming it up as a psychotic mad doctor, he has so little screen time that you can't tell for sure. I’m not real crazy about Georges Corraface as the villainous Cuevro Jones. Corraface isn’t bad, even has a moment or two, but is mostly just bland. The film seems to intentionally compare him to the Duke of New York, but with a disco ball on his car instead of chandeliers. Corraface is no Isaac Hayes, is what I’m saying.

But what about Snake? Kurt inhabits the part as naturally as before. Only this time, the movie works towards making him a more likable character. Snake isn’t just in it for himself, this time. The world has gotten crazier and now an amoral crook like Snake seems far more heroic. He seems a little more inclined to rescue the innocents around him this time and a little more interested in fighting evil. Maybe the oft-referenced, off-screen Cleveland incident has changed him for the better.

The movie goes a long way to building up Snake as a bad-ass. Some of these decisions work better then others. Snake in a trench-coat? Sure. Snake on a motorcycle? Absolutely. These are natural. Snake hang gliding? Movie, you’re pushing it and it doesn’t help that the green screen effects are a little awkward. Snake on a surfboard? Okay, now that’s silly. The character picking up a skill like that while fighting a cold really pushes believability. Worse yet, the movie’s incredibly choppy CGI effects are most evident here. (This is also noticeable during the submarine and helicopter sequences. Computer effects have come a long way.) By the time Snake is shooting hoops in a life-or-death basketball game, it becomes clear that Kurt was just sticking stuff in the screenplay that he wanted to do. For the record, the basketball scene, though largely a repeat of the wrestling match from the first movie, actually creates some decent suspense, silly as it is.

The ending is pitch-perfect and makes up for a lot of the film’s problems. Snake presses a button, plunges the world into darkness, which is the right thing to do. Kurt is is at his most convincingly awesome in that moment. Carpenter seems focused on the frequently choppy special effects, though his direction is far from bad. I’d say his score, co-composed with Shirley Walker, is better then “New York’s,” though it looses points for forcing so many pop songs on to the soundtrack. I get why “Escape from L.A.” received a mixed reaction from fans and the general public. It’s a goofy-ass movie and not the most smoothly constructed. Still, I find myself enjoying it more every time I watch it. Snake is pretty cool, after all. [Grade: B]

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