This singularly surly antihero first appeared in Escape from New York, John Carpenter's 1981 cult classic. Still a popular rental item on home video, the movie imagines a not-so-distant future when Manhattan has been turned into a maximum-security prison. When Air Force One crash-lands in the Big Apple, someone needs to break into the penal colony and rescue the U.S. president. That someone turns out to be Snake Plissken, a taciturn reprobate played with equal measures of self-mockery and swaggering machismo by a raspy-voiced Kurt Russell.
Fifteen years later, Russell remains larger and meaner than life in Carpenter's Escape from L.A., a slam-bang sequel with a brazenly nihilistic sense of humor. This time, Plissken visits a futuristic Los Angeles, which has been turned into a dumping ground for criminals, murderers, revolutionaries and card-carrying liberals in the wake of a cataclysmic earthquake. The U.S. president, played as a Bible-thumping fascist by Cliff Robertson, has rewritten the Constitution and moved the nation's capitol to -- uh-oh! -- Lynchburg, Virginia. But his rebellious daughter has fled to L.A., armed with a device that could make satellite weapons do nasty things to mankind. Someone needs to break into L.A., recover the device -- and, while he's at it, exterminate the First Daughter.
Once again, Plissken is reluctant to be a hero. (Truth to tell, he doesn't give a flip about the fate of mankind.) Once again, the authorities, represented here by Stacy Keach and Michelle Forbes, are very efficient at "convincing" Snake to do the right thing. And, once again, Snake must do battle with the minions of a self-styled overlord (George Corraface) in the penal colony underworld.
Escape from L.A. doesn't win many points for originality. Not only does Carpenter recycle elements from his first Escape movie, he also borrows freely from a dozen or so other post-apocalyptic action-adventures. Even the basic notion of a devastated L.A. where streets have become rivers is old news. Two years ago, there was a strikingly similar turn of events in Double Dragon, a spirited little program based on the video-arcade game.
But what Escape from L.A. lacks in imagination, it makes up with attitude. Sassy and swaggering, it openly acknowledges its own prefab junkiness, then forces us to admit that, hey, sometimes junk is just what we want while we're munching M&M's at the multiplex. Almost every step of the way, we know what's going to happen next. And Carpenter knows that we know. In fact, he underscores and italicizes the cliches so that, more often than not, the predictable payoff is part of the joke. At one point, a relatively sympathetic L.A. prisoner brags: "Once you figure out this place, it's really not so bad." Now, you know what happens to any character who says something like that. And, sure enough, the words are punctuated by gunfire.
Unlike a lot of the glitzier big-bang movies released this summer, Escape from L.A. doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: a rowdy B movie melodrama with a classy A movie budget. Indeed, there are times when it seems that, even with that budget, Carpenter wants his sequel to look like a cheesy exploitation flick. When Peter Fonda, well cast as a burned-out beach dude, invites Snake to join him in surfing down Wilshire Boulevard, the scene looks almost as tacky as a skit on Late Night with David Letterman.
In addition to Robertson, the supporting cast includes Pam Grier as a transsexual outlaw, Steve Buscemi as a smalltime sleaze, Bruce Campbell as a none-too-competent plastic surgeon and Valeria Golino as a woman sent to L.A. for the crime of being a Muslim in South Dakota. (Carpenter takes potshots at both ends of the political spectrum, but he saves the heavy ammo to aim at the Religious Right.)
Russell maintains an admirably straight face throughout Escape from L.A., even when he's clearly winking at the audience. In his eye patch and leather mufti, he is an action figure come to life, buffed up and ready to kick ass. How tough is he? Well, as the movie makes a special point of repeatedly telling us, he didn't merely escape from New York -- he also survived Cleveland. Little wonder, then, that he's more than a match for anything he encounters of the mean streets of Los Angeles.
-- Joe Leydon
Escape from L.A.
Directed by John Carpenter. With Kurt Russell, Stacy Keach and Cliff Robertson.