**/**** Image A- Sound B+
starring Kurt Russell, Stacy Keach, Steve Buscemi, Cliff Robertson
screenplay by John Carpenter & Debra Hill & Kurt Russell
directed by John Carpenter
by Bryant Frazer The 1990s were unkind to John Carpenter: The stock market was booming, there was a Democrat in the White House, and the American horror film was at a low ebb. That was the decade when Carpenter--arguably the best B-movie auteur in the world during the 1980s and certainly the most audacious--lost his mojo. Exhausted from the experience of making two genre classics (They Live and Prince of Darkness) back to back, Carpenter took a couple of years off from filmmaking. When he was ready to work again, he considered making The Exorcist III but eventually settled on an ill-fated Chevy Chase vehicle, the $40 million sci-fi adaptation Memoirs of an Invisible Man, that torpedoed his attempted return to big-budget filmmaking. Carpenter tore through three more projects in the next three years--the Showtime horror anthology Body Bags, the Lovecraft riff In the Mouth of Madness, and a Village of the Damned remake--before deciding to pillage his own back catalogue with a sequel to the dystopian Escape from New York.
If Escape from L.A. wasn't a pre-ordained failure, it was a tacit admission that Carpenter wasn't exactly swimming in marketable new ideas. The director had rejected a proposed Escape from New York sequel as early as 1985, later describing the prospective script as overly "campy." That complaint didn't seem to carry much weight a decade later, when Carpenter, actor Kurt Russell, and producer Debra Hill collaborated on a screenplay that includes a sequence in which Russell's stoic, one-eyed antihero Snake Plissken surfs alongside Peter Fonda on the crest of a huge tsunami before leaping into a convertible driven by Steve Buscemi. The film exults in its imagination of the greater Los Angeles area as a ruined metropolis, with the Santa Monica Freeway well underwater and the Universal Studios theme park beset by real sharks instead of the Spielberg variety. In the action climax, Disneyland--stripped of its familiar branding following a corporate bankruptcy--is invaded from the skies as Plissken drops in, gun blazing. (It's not the movie of a man who's entirely happy with the machinations of Hollywood studios.) Carpenter later said he wanted the scene to be reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, which figures. With its aggressively whimsical dream logic, the only way this movie really makes sense is if Snake wakes up in Kansas in the final reel.
It's not that Escape from New York was a model of narrative efficiency. That was a loose film, somnolently paced, yet it called back fondly and charmingly to exploitation pictures of the 1970s, and it caught something of the country's mood. The grimly implausible scenario--Manhattan Island isolated from civilization and repurposed as a maximum-security prison, where Do What Thou Wilt is the law--simultaneously satirized and indulged popular perceptions of the big city as danger zone. Conversely, Escape from L.A. treats neighbourhoods of Los Angeles as rooms in a funhouse. The town is replete with tourist traps (Buscemi's character is even named "Map to the Stars Eddie"), plastic-surgery disasters (Bruce Campbell has a cameo as a deranged doctor harvesting body parts from the few remaining beautiful people in Beverly Hills), joyless gangsters (Snake watches gunplay between two cars screaming down Mulholland Drive), and beautiful women scantily clad (in what may be a clever inversion, the film's version of Hollywood is teeming with prostitutes who couldn't look more like random SAG-card aspirants dolled up in ludicrous fuck-me garb). It doesn't sound bad on paper, but none of it sticks. Escape from L.A. is so broadly comic in tone that there's no sense of menace, and Carpenter's sense of humour is so dry, and these characters are so dull in general, that the actual gags never work up a head of steam. Only the very last shot, in which Snake gives the planet--and the film's audience--the ultimate kiss-off, seems truly appropriate to Plissken's (not to mention Carpenter's) larger-than-life reputation.
Dull though they may be, Carpenter's comic vignettes hold more interest than the bigger story arc--something to do with an invasion of the U.S. being organized by a terrorist convict calling himself Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface); Snake's mission is to recover a mysterious black box that was smuggled into L.A. by the rebellious daughter (A.J. Langer) of the PotUS (Cliff Robertson). That's all McGuffin, more or less. What's more memorable are the film's gaudy visions of excess. Escape from L.A. has a brighter and more colourful look than the resolutely dim Escape from New York, which may have been a deliberate decision to embrace a sunny Southern California palette, though I'm guessing it also had something to do with the presence of cinematographer Gary Kibbe, rather than the wizard Dean Cundey, behind the camera. The friendlier look goes conceptually with the picture's more overtly jokey approach, but it loses the critical element of dread that made Escape from New York not just an outrageous shaggy-dog story but also a kind of dark fairytale for the blood-and-guts set. Escape from L.A. is so toothless that you have to wonder why Carpenter stuck with an R rating instead of going for the more lucrative PG-13. Pride? Vanity?
The worst of it is that Escape from L.A. was released at a time when computer graphics were still in their relative infancy, and its CGI is frankly cartoonish, while the composites that make up that surfboard ride down Wilshire Boulevard are...unconvincing. Some of the miniatures work holds up pretty well, but the film will forever be dated by the phoniness of its most ambitious effects, including shots held together by the digital equivalent of chewing gum and bailing wire. In a pinch, you could posit the crudely-layered VFX work as an elegant fit with the goofy, comic-book style of the action, but I think that's a reach. Like many Carpenter films, Escape from L.A. is at least partially modelled on westerns--Plissken is actually described at one point as a "gunfighter"--and the seriously goofy surfer-dude and mad-scientist stuff feels out of place.
And there's another way the movie's dated. I'm definitely in favour of roles for Pam Grier, and Carpenter gives her a small but showy one in Escape from L.A.. She plays Hershe--it's pronounced like "Hershey," thus it's an insistent play on race as well as gender. See, Hershe is a transwoman with hairy 'pits and an uncharacteristically deep voice who used to be a buddy of Snake's known as Carjack Malone. When Snake finds her, he gets in close, runs his hand up her thigh to her crotch and declares, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," before intimidating "Carjack" with the gun he found there. When she insists, "I'm no longer Carjack Malone," he hisses in response, "I don't give a fuck what you are." Yes, Plissken has story reasons for threatening Hershe. But, absent that greater context, the film plays here exactly as though Snake is threatening a hate crime.
Context is everything, and I don't imagine that either Carpenter or Russell harbours much ill will towards transsexuals. I might even argue that Carpenter's decision to cast a great actress like Pam Grier in a transgender role is evidence of his egalitarianism. Still, with the presence-or-not of a dick between her legs dropped as one in a long series of jokes about crazy Angelenos, the aggression rankles. Eighteen years have passed since the film's release, and I'm guessing neither Carpenter nor Russell would be comfortable including the scene as written if the film were released today. Like the outmoded VFX work, it's a flourish that makes Escape from L.A. uglier than it was intended to be.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
I have no real complaints about Paramount's Blu-ray of Escape from L.A., though it's not going to be anybody's idea of demo material. At its best, the 1080p image, letterboxed at 2.35:1, has really good, filmlike dynamic range and contrast, although detail tends to disappear in the blacks in darker scenes. The definition in some shots may be limited by characteristics of the anamorphic lenses that were in use--which means, mainly, that the film looks like a real John Carpenter movie--but there are a lot of VFX shots that have an overall flat, lo-res appearance with deeply-crushed blacks, likely owing to limitations of the technology in use at the time. (While these shots probably stand out more on Blu-ray than they did on release prints, they didn't look great on 35mm either.) It won't get much better unless someone goes back in and rebuilds the VFX composites from scratch. A layer of grain is visible but not intrusive throughout, and I didn't see any evidence of edge-sharpening or wanton noise reduction.
The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is about what you'd expect of latter-day Carpenter, without a lot of attention paid to directional sound. The surround channels do fire up, especially during the destruction-of-L.A. sequence that opens the film, but the sound is mostly front-and-centre. Dialogue is perfectly clear throughout; though the decibel level isn't particularly high, the track is mixed well with the rest of the sound elements. All that said, this title isn't exactly a crown jewel in the Paramount library. The only extra feature budgeted for on this Blu-ray is a HiDef theatrical trailer. In a minute and a half, it does a pretty good, tongue-in-cheek job of selling the movie to anyone who's interested in buying.