One-Shot Wonder

So much for narrative invention.
Although the general outline is less a variation than a remake -- sort of a distant replay -- Carpenter and his co-writers, producer Debra Hill and star Russell, have made a few changes in the setup. (Carpenter co-wrote the original with Nick Castle.) Escape From New York reflected the early Reagan-era sense that the metropolitan East was on the way out, that its citizens were crazies and its cities virtual insane asylums. Escape From L.A. mirrors today's paranoia that Sunbelt cities breed decadence as well as explosive collisions between the mainstream United States and Third World immigrants. Underneath their burned-out counterculture trappings, both these not-so-great Escape movies are unrelievedly reactionary. The cops in Escape From New York were black-shirted thugs, but the convicts ranged from cannibals to corrupt fiends. In Escape From L.A. the president (Cliff Robertson) may be a blowhard right-wing moralist who's moved the capital from Washington to Virginia and made every guilty pleasure (from smoking to red meat) illegal, along with all non-Christian Coalition thought. But the majority of forced Angelenos are either feckless, self-destructive hedonists or underclass hoodlums who want to wrest power for themselves. Life in these films is just the way capitalist philosopher Thomas Hobbes said it would be in the state of nature: nasty, brutish, and short; in both movies, the only objective standard and reforming force is the power of a gun. In Escape From New York the gangland counter-kingdom founded by "The Duke" (Isaac Hayes), who dressed like a futuristic Superfly, bordered on a racist fantasy of what happens to city government when blacks take over. In Escape From L.A. the revolutionary force of Cuervo Jones, who dresses like a Banana Republic Che Guevara and glory-rides through ruined streets, borders on a racist fantasy of what happens to city government when Hispanics take over. Indeed, Jones' purloining of the doomsday device, which can shut off the power systems of a town, a state, or the planet Earth, triggers Third World invasion plans, with massive forces poised to flood into Florida from Cuba.

"This is not just about gun-toting minorities, although it may seem that way in some scenes and especially in the finale, which highlights Cuervo Jones' gang," producer/writer Hill told a writer from Cinefantastique. "There are also some very good people in this film," she said, noting a Muslim woman named Taslima, played by Valeria Golino. But when Taslima gets shot after touting L.A. as the last free place on Earth, you have to take the character's and the producer's statements ironically. Of course, maintaining a consistent tone has always been a problem for Carpenter; here, as usual, you're caught between laughing and choking.

This anarchistic, amateurish plague-on-both-your-houses daydream might have had its grungy charms if (as Godard once put it) the jokes were funny and the bullets were real. But Escape From L.A., like its predecessor, either ties knots in its own punch lines or misfires. The niftiest socio-political japes fly out in expository dialogue, never to be mentioned again, as when the cops report that Plissken has been gunslinging in "New Vegas, Thailand." Carpenter and company fall in love with the lamest running gags. As in the first film, whenever anyone calls our he-man "Plissken," he replies, "Call me Snake"; the filmmakers think it's equally funny when anyone who meets him for the first time says, "I thought you were taller." That wouldn't be so irritating if the movie didn't flub the most reliable action-movie ploys. When top cops Stacy Keach and Michelle Forbes rig and outfit Plissken for his journey, there's none of the fun of, say, "Q" cooking up and demonstrating fresh doodads for Bond; the closest to a real build and payoff comes with the most primitive device, a lethal dart. This $50 million action spectacle looks like just as much of a cheese-and-cardboard sandwich as the $7 million 1981 edition. The scenes of Russell shooting baskets under duress, or riding the waves down Wilshire Canyon during a post-aftershock tsunami (with long-toothed surfer Peter Fonda), or hang gliding on a mechanical bat wing, come off as feeble parodies of TV commercials centering on "extreme sports" like sky-surfing. The combination of stunts, conventional special effects, and computer-generated imagery backfires; it never gives you the elating illusions of the old swashbucklers, which persuaded you that dashing physical specimens like Fairbanks or Flynn were pulling off their derring-do in the real world.

Since Snake Plissken can be the most boring of good-bad guys, it's hard to figure why an actor as genial as Kurt Russell would grow attached to him. Steve Buscemi, playing an ex-talent agent nicknamed "Map to the Stars Eddie," brings his ferrety brand of anti-charm to the proceedings, and Bruce Campbell (veteran of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies), playing "The Surgeon General of Beverly Hills," gets the benefit of the most sustained and pointed sequence when he prods Russell and Golino for fresh parts to give his cosmetic-surgical catastrophes. But Pam Grier, in the role of a transsexual gangster formerly known as Carjack Malone (and now known as Hershe Hernandez) has nothing to do; it's as if she were cast for her talismanic qualities.

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