At the midpoint of Escape From L.A., a futuristic action yarn from director John Carpenter, protagonist Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) walks along a crumbling street with Taslima (Valerie Golina), a shell-shocked but spunky resident whose shag haircut seems to have been created by DuPont Stainmaster. It's a nothing bit, really--a purely expository segment designed to get the characters from one fight to the next--but it's notable for the way it ends: abruptly. Without warning, a shot of Russell and Golina in conversation suddenly dissolves to another sequence of the pair talking, this time in a similar but clearly separate location. Jump cuts are often used by filmmakers for dramatic effect, but not this one. Instead, it suggests that Carpenter didn't have adequate coverage for the scene and was left to slam things together as best he could.
In short, Carpenter, who made his directorial debut in 1974 with the enjoyably daft low-budget programmer Dark Star, remains something of a hack. Whereas peers such as Francis Ford Coppola and Joe Dante, who also got their start in grade-Z cinema, have developed their techniques over the course of their careers, Carpenter is pretty much right where he started. When he tries to stretch, as he did with 1984's slick but defiantly derivative Starman and the 1991 catastrophe Memoirs of an Invisible Man, he produces work that's just as weak as the efforts of filmdom's most anonymous lensmen. On those occasions when he hews closer to his exploitation roots, however, he can be an entertaining, if unrefined, guide. Halloween, from 1978, has been overrated by revisionist critics who seem to believe that any project that spawned an entire movie style (in this case, the slasher sub-genre) must have some intrinsic worth. But 1976's Assault on Precinct 13, a homage to Rio Bravo, is a tight, effective siege picture; 1979's Elvis, a made-for-TV biography that first teamed Carpenter with Russell, strikes an ideal balance between warmth and voyeurism; and 1988's little-seen They Live is arguably the finest celluloid epic ever to star a professional wrestler (Roddy Piper). Escape From New York, from 1981, was a step down in quality from Carpenter's peak performances, but its cheesy narrative and campy acting made it fairly diverting. L.A. is neither much worse nor much better than its predecessor, but that hardly matters. At least it has some juice.
Differences between the plots of the two Escapes seem purely coincidental; Carpenter apparently believes that simply moving his setting from one coast to another constitutes ample alteration. The newer film begins with the severing of Los Angeles from the North American continent--hardly something to mourn about, in Carpenter's opinion. (The director shares screenwriting credit with Russell and producer Debra Hill.) This disaster leads to the election as president of a right-wing zealot (Cliff Robertson) who predicted the quake. Fifteen years later, L.A. island is being used as a dumping ground for criminals and other undesirables ("Prostitutes, atheists, runaways," one character intones). Robertson's dizzy daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) subsequently steals the ultimate weapon, a "black box" capable of shutting off all power on the planet, and scurries to Los Angeles, where she takes up with a revolutionary, portrayed by George Corraface as a cross between Che Guevara and the guy Michael Jackson roughed up in the "Beat It" video. Enter Snake, a mercenary who Robertson and two police-state flunkies (Stacy Keach and Michelle Forbes) believe to be the only man capable of retrieving the box, which looks suspiciously like a remote control I lost a couple of years back. If he doesn't do so within ten hours, a designer virus with which he's been infected will kill him.
Of course this is ludicrous, and the believability index doesn't go up when the action moves to Los Angeles, where Snake encounters characters such as weaselly Map to the Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi), spacey Pipeline (Peter Fonda), and Hershe, a sex-changed felon played with muscle-pumping brio by Pam Grier. Fortunately, Carpenter is in on the jokes, and even if he can't pull many of them off (lines about Russell's height never go anywhere, for example), he keeps them coming. The President is said to have moved the White House to Lynchburg, Virginia, home base of Jerry Falwell; Taslima reveals that she was sentenced for being "a Muslim in South Dakota"; and a public-address announcer tells prisoners, "You now have the option to repent your sins and be electrocuted on the premises."
The visuals of Los Angeles in ruin (Universal Studio under water, a flattened Capitol Records building) pack less of a punch. Unlike New York, whose landmarks bespeak a sense of permanence, Southern California epitomizes planned obsolescence: Buildings are torn down there every couple of years whether they need to be or not. But what these images lack in power they gain in tackiness. Ticket-buyers won't walk out of L.A. awed by the staggering computer effects. In fact, the Beverly Hills Hotel looks like the work of a motel-room art-school dropout. Thank goodness the shot ends when it does, or Snake might have smacked face-first into the canvas.
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Russell plays his anti-hero part exactly as he did in New York; he grits his teeth and imitates Clint Eastwood. The other turns are far more variable. Buscemi is sliminess itself, but Fonda so fumbles his surferspeak dialogue that it takes until his last scene to realize what he's been trying to do. As for Keach, Forbes and Robertson, they're confined to a single room for the vast majority of the narrative, like Raymond Burr in the original Godzilla. Keach, though, understands what's expected of him: He delivers pompous speeches about Snake's invulnerability while staring off-camera, in the best Ed Wood tradition.
The Luddite theme underpinning L.A. should strike a chord at a time when fallen trees in Oregon can cut off the power in more than a dozen states; an upcoming thriller, The Trigger Effect, is based on the same concept. But Carpenter is more interested in dopey kicks than in provocative thought. Just as he did on his first pictures, he co-composed the overblown, purposefully stereotypical score for his latest, and he uses it in the same way he always has--for its unadulterated corniness. The latest Escape is superficial, and several of its set pieces (particularly a basketball challenge staged at the L.A. Coliseum) are bad ideas done poorly. But for anyone exhausted by the latest batch of Hollywood explosion-fests, Carpenter's good-humored modesty can be a tonic. He's better than anyone else at making a big budget seem small.
Escape From L.A.. Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill and Kurt Russell. Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Kurt Russell, Stacy Keach, Pam Grier, Steve Buscemi and Peter Fonda.
Bill Gallo is on vacation.