John Carpenter was the low-budget directorial phenom of the '70s -- the pauper's Hitchcock whose Halloween, independently produced at a cost of $300,000, went on to gross $60 million worldwide. But he was also a one-shot wonder. Carpenter's influence derived solely from that unexpected blockbuster and his popularization of what Carol J. Clover (in her provocative Men, Women, and Chain Saws) calls "the most widely imitated -- and widely parodied -- cliche of modern horror": the exploitation of a subjective camera to replicate a murderer's gaze. In Clover's words, "We adopt the vision of an entity that stalks a house, peers in windows, enters and goes to the kitchen for a carving knife, then proceeds upstairs, opens a door, and stabs a young woman to death -- all without knowing who 'we' are, and all without direct reference to the mediation of a camera. There is a camera, of course, and presumably in the interests of realism it is in Carpenter's use unmounted, yielding an image that wavers and trembles much the way a mad killer might."
At the time, this technique didn't seem like a stroke of pop genius on Carpenter's part: It was more like a second helping of Spielberg's shark's-eye views from Jaws, which also wavered and trembled, much the way a voracious, ever-prowling sea monster might. Nonetheless, Carpenter's generic plotting, freshmanic humor, and division of teen victims into "good" girls and "bad" girls, combined with his relentless camera, spawned a deluge of cheap chop-'em-ups that held sway until the '90s, when the Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street series sputtered out simultaneously.
The rest of Carpenter's career has been a footnote to his first and only huge success. Whether he did a glossy horror fable like The Fog, a Stephen King revenge thriller like Christine, or an E.T.-esque heartwarmer like Starman, nothing clicked like Halloween; even when he hit on a great notion, like having aliens dominate consumer culture through subliminal advertising in the anti-yuppie hatefest They Live, his crudeness frittered it away. (They Live featured a fistfight so overextended that it gave you time to visit the restroom and the refreshment counter and read the free giveaways in the lobby without missing anything important.) Lately, Carpenter has dated his own decline to the critical and commercial failure of one of his personal favorites, 1982's The Thing, an experiment in sci-fi terror about a shape-shifting alien loose on an antarctic research base (from the same source material as Howard Hawks' classic The Thing [From Another World]). Carpenter's movie worked on one emotion and one emotion alone (squeamish anticipation), and after all the gaudy metamorphoses, gruesome murders, and autopsies, you began to feel like you were an observer in a MASH unit, except no good deeds were being done.
But with the onslaught of home video, one more Carpenter creation took root in video gremlins' consciousness and grew to a heady cult status. It was his 1981 nightmare of the future, Escape From New York -- a dumb-cluck Clockwork Orange that Carpenter characterized as "an extremely black comedy, reflecting my very dim, cynical view of life." In authentic hack fashion, Carpenter has come around to updating it by switching coasts and calling it Escape From L.A.
For those who've seen the "Snake Is Back" ad campaign but haven't yet gotten bit, Carpenter's Escape movies portray the turn-of-the-century United States as a police state with one two-fisted free spirit left: decorated war veteran and gunfighter Snake Plissken. Back in '81, Carpenter said that this oddly named anti-hero "is a real person. A friend of mine from high school, kind of a hoodlum." Indeed, Plissken could be summarized in a yearbook caption: "He's a rebel -- loves those weights." In Plissken, the image of the high school delinquent and the righteous strong-arm tough guy come together. He's all sneer and glare. As Snake, Kurt Russell looks like Jeff Bridges gone rancid, with pirate-length hair and a Moshe Dayan eye patch. He sounds, however, like Clint Eastwood -- he has the same toneless, desert-dry inflections. He moves like a stockier Eastwood, with a surly languor, and he behaves like the Eastwood of the spaghetti westerns -- when it comes to taking down opponents and saving his own skin, he has a predictable unpredictability. In Raiders of the Lost Ark a virtuoso swordsman challenges Indiana Jones to come at him with a whip, but Indy coolly draws his gun and shoots the bastard -- and it's a kick because Jones is an honorable guy. In Escape From L.A., Plissken sets the rules for a duel and breaks them before a tossed can hits the ground. But you don't revel in his cleverness: You wonder how his opponents could be so stupid.
In Escape I, set in 1997, New York City was a maximum-security penal colony. The fascist police left nuts, junkies, and slimeballs to roam the rotting Big Apple and stew in their own rank juices, while the cops themselves stayed outside, quartered on, yes, Liberty Island. The police enlisted Plissken to infiltrate in order to rescue the president, who had ejected from a hijacked Air Force One and crash-landed in a special pod while carrying plans for a nuclear fusion bomb. To ensure Plissken's speedy return, the cops injected him with microscopic time bombs. In Escape II (now, pay attention), set in 2013, Los Angeles Island -- which broke off from the rest of the continent in the year 2000, after a 9.6 earthquake -- is a maximum-security penal colony. The fascist police leave nuts, junkies, and slimeballs -- and freethinkers, atheists, and Muslims -- to roam the rotting Big Orange and stew in their own rank juices, while the cops themselves stay outside, manning (and womanning) the new coastline from Malibu to Orange County. They enlist Plissken to infiltrate and find the president's daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), who absconded with a doomsday device she put into the hands of her lover, a Shining Path leader named Cuervo Jones (George Corraface). To ensure Plissken's speedy return with the ultimate weapon in hand (he's supposed to kill pretty young Utopia), the cops inject him with a toxic virus that they say will kill him in 10 hours unless they provide him with the antidote.
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.
The L.A. parodies in the movie are embarrassingly flat -- a Disneyland takeoff called "The Happy Kingdom by the Sea" is no more than a sarcastic backdrop, and a fleeting reference to the Jaws ride on the Universal Studios tour amounts to a jolly little plug. Escape From L.A. wants to be a rampage of political incorrectness, but it's so locked into its own tiny movie world that it resonates only with true believers in violent kitsch, who chortle at the first appearance of Campbell or Grier. If it isn't weighed down with the in-jokiness of the first film (which included characters named for directors Cronenberg and Romero), Escape From L.A. is just as much a product of pseudo-hipness. It brings back the atmosphere of debauched cultiness that began to plague American moviedom when the air went out of the renaissance that Coppola spearheaded with his Godfather films. Because American genre movies meant as much to directors like Coppola and Scorsese as European art movies, and because they and other major talents (like Richard Rush and Robert Towne) had emerged from exploitation mills, serious critics and fans often became connoisseurs du schlock, trying to read the future of the movies between the sprockets of the most degraded trash. Limited directors like Carpenter, Romero, Wes Craven, and (remember?) Tobe Hooper received outlandish respect (while outsize talents like Brian De Palma were often reviled for their ambition). At the end of Escape From L.A. Snake Plissken lights a match during a universal blackout. For a long time, Carpenter has been in the same position as his anti-hero: Only in the land of the blind is the one-eyed man, or one-shot director, king.
Escape From L.A. opens Friday, Aug. 9, at area theaters.
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