John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A.

The walking, one-eyed phallic symbol that is ‘Snake’ Plissken is back. For some reason.

In 1981, Escape from New York inspired a young Robert Rodriguez and became a near-instant cult classic. It is rumoured that Carpenter conceived the plot as a response to the Watergate scandal, but confused studio bosses by handing them a script about a dystopian future where New York has become a maximum security prison and the kidnapped US President has to be rescued from it by a one-eyed bank robber. Though they turned the script upside down, had it translated into several languages and tried reading it at midnight whilst sky-clad and drinking pig’s blood, the studio execs still couldn’t figure out what the hell it had to do with Watergate. “No,” they said.

All that changed when Halloween, Carpenter’s response to the rise of Quebecoise separatism cunningly disguised as a slasher flick, did good box office. The studio execs re-examined the script for Escape from New York, and though it was still baffling they decided to greenlight it. The process for getting 1996’s Escape from L.A. from go to whoa (woe?) was easier and can be summed up as: $ + $ = $$. Hundreds of people were hired to do the special effects that the film heavily relies on. Since those same effects can now be achieved by any mouth-breather with a laptop, Escape from L.A.’s laughably cheap and dated look can be added to its long list of failings.

Snake (Kurt Russell) slithers back into being in 1996, when Los Angeles is the new American hell hole thanks to a devastating earthquake that has separated the city from the mainland. Here, the USA’s moral undesirables are exiled and rendered stateless. The recent disasters in Japan, Haiti and New Zealand make the images of a city in ruins a lot more upsetting than they deserve to be, but this poignancy doesn’t last long thanks to the ensuing tsunami of dross. The plot is 98% the same as the first instalment, except this time it’s the President’s daughter in a pickle and Snake’s not meant to save her.

Young Utopia has been ‘groomed’ online by a terrorist, Cuervo Jones, who has convinced her to rebel against the totalitarian regime headed by her Christian fundamentalist father. This involves Utopia hijacking Air Force One all on her lonesome, seizing some kind of doomsday device and then escaping to L.A. where she gifts the weapon to Jones. Jones is supposed to be Snake’s main opposition, but he is as charisma-free and devoid of menace as you could wish. His Che Guevara costume doesn’t compensate for a complete lack of magnetism. This guy couldn’t convince a single person to follow him on Twitter, let alone brainwash a privileged brat into giving up her life of luxury for the chance to wear hot pants and spend her days dodging bullets.

Snake is dragged in and forced, through means too implausible to mention, to bring the weapon back and execute the First Daughter.

When, in 2007, the idea of remaking Escape from New York with Gerard Butler in the role of Snake was floated, Russell was less than impressed. “I will say that when I was told who was going to play Snake Plissken, my initial reaction was ‘Oh, man!.’ I do think that character was quintessentially one thing. And that is, American.”  This chauvinism is all over Escape from L.A. like fake tan.

It manifests itself as a complete lack of humour, despite the fact that Escape from L.A. shoves its tongue so far into its cheek it does itself an injury. (For example, a Great White shark snaps at Snake’s speeding submarine, and Peter Fonda and Snake surf a wave down Rodeo Drive.) A very brief scene, in which Snake and his new-found Muslim best friend (Valeria Golino) are kidnapped for body parts by plastic surgery addicts, is as ham-fisted an attempt at satire as has ever been filmed. Even Bruce Campbell, barely recognisable under all the prosthetics as LA’s surgeon general, can’t rescue it. Once out of the doctor’s clutches, Golino makes a half-hearted pass at Snake which he rebuffs. She declares that L.A. isn’t so bad “once you get used to it” and is shot dead by a Korean gang.

The fate of Golino’s brazen hussy is at least doled out faster than Utopia’s horrible plotline, which goes like this: a young white girl, from a ‘good’ Christian home, runs away to the slums to live with a violent Latino crime boss who psychologically and physically dominates her. Her father’s response is to send an assassin after her. Not only is Utopia’s story all about the male domination of women, it’s also a blatant expression of racist, psychosexual nightmares. I am not alone in seeing unpleasant undertones beneath Escape from LA’s cheerful meat-headisms.

Scott Bukatman describes the two Snake Plissken films as ‘white man’s revenge’ stories, and cites the ‘shooting hoops’ scene as an example. In this scene, Jones locks Snake on a basketball court and sets him the near-impossible task of shooting 10 points in 10 seconds in order to avoid execution. When Snake succeeds, the mainly black and Hispanic crowd stop baying for his blood and start chanting his name. “This town,” observes Steve Buscemi, “loves a winner.”  Between scenes like these, the casual murder of Golino’s character, Utopia’s constant tears, and the bizarre treatment of Pam Grier, Escape from L.A. looks like the ultimate middle finger to liberal values.

Grier has most reason to feel bitter. She plays a transsexual version of Carjack Malone with an over-dubbed voice and a wardrobe pinched from Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. On their first encounter, Snake recognises her and runs his hand up her leg to her crotch, where he discovers a gun that he takes away from her. Paging Dr Freud etc. Needless to say, no black transsexuals make it out of L.A.

Happily, however, even in the olden days of 1996 Snake was a man out of step with the times and Escape from LA was a bomb. Of the Carpenter films I’ve watched for this retrospective, this was the only one I found to be not only tedious beyond redemption, but offensive and boorish as well. Plissken’s not so much a snake as an utter dick.

 Clare Moody

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