Quick confession. This is my first time with John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. – despite knowing 1981’s Escape from New York – and what a time to be alive, and how interesting that films like this, at this level, just wouldn’t be made in quite the same way now. While the first instalment of Kurt Russell’s iconic Snake Plissken character is rooted in modern movie history, being both ridiculous and brilliant is an oddly cool and unique trick to pull off, Escape from L.A. really does belong in the cult favourites, and it has found its way there despite an uncomfortable time at the 1996 box office.
I enjoyed Escape from L.A. in a separate way to Escape from New York (EFNY), because it’s so far out there and beyond anything of that mid-90s era. Set initially in 1998, the world created isn’t too far away at all from the original plot of EFNY but they’ve really upped the cheese, the chaotic fight/war scenes and an interesting futuristic LA/East coast of America ravaged by an unsettled and Mad Max-esque population. Oh, also, a 9.6 quake has taken out most of L.A. and created an island because the quake flooded the San Fernando Valley. Obviously.
In the resulting chaos, a deeply religious (or a version of evangelical) president takes office and brings into law morality laws that many states even try now in real life, which is a concern. But, in the film, anyone who breaks these laws can choose between either death or being sent to the new ‘crime prison’ which is, in turn, Los Angeles. So that’s joining the death of society, or death. Oh, and the island is locked in with an intense police presence, federal style. So you can’t escape.
Slipping forward to 2013, the US now have a superweapon which the mad president wants to use to destroy other nations electronic devices, i.e., everything, but his daughter steals it because her boyfriend is a revolutionary. The latter has also arranged for his army and other ‘third-world’ nations to come back to the US and take it back for the people. So, yeah, it’s kind of complex but it’s all there and you can’t say they skimp on the idea, and you don’t have to push American ideals too far to get there either, which is even more concerning but – anyway, that’s politics in the modern era.
And Snake? Well, he’s brought in to get the President’s daughter out of L.A. and to recover the superweapon at the same time and in return, his moral arrests record will be wiped. It’s the classic setup really, and it was co-written by John Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell. Overall, they don’t step too far away from the formula and the in-jokes are here, from “He looks so retro!” and Snake’s change into a leather-bound man of the dystopia future, through “Call me Snake…” and not forgetting the flip from “I thought you were dead” to “I thought you’d be taller…” – which did amuse me!
In 4K UHD, certain parts of Escape from L.A. fail the ‘how does it look now?’ test because the CGI/graphics are very dated, but let’s be fair because computer graphics were still on the build at that moment, and only the likes of Jurassic Park and Toy Story were trying to push things forward – as a selection, and let’s not forget the pure reality of Michael Mann’s Heat, a year before in 1995. But, anyway, the nuclear submarine CGI scenes are pretty bad but you let it go, as you do for Snake surfing through the streets of L.A. But for all that, you enjoy the silliness of Snake trying to survive by playing basketball against the clock and how utterly crazy the gun shoot-outs are, of which there are endless ones packed with big guns, huge explosions and general ridiculousness from start to finish but, with the surround sound, those moments fill the room – and I’d read some have had sound issues, but ours was fine – Just LOUD!
But here’s the thing, it’s so imperfect that you can go with it. Kurt Russell is impeccably cool, and somehow, he keeps this show together with that unerring calmness in the most ludicrous situations. It’s also picked out a few reflective things, which were surely obvious to see even in 1996, from broadcasting/streaming to the Globe, presidents trying to get rid of people they don’t like, and even Police guards in face masks, controlling the population through violence and viruses in the blood – conspiracy theorists will love this right now, and some of the things aren’t that far from reality – a little like the recent re-release of the Cannes Cut Southland Tales and “What happened to the American Dream? It came true! You’re looking at it…” from Watchmen.
Escape from L.A. is outrageous, that’s the key thought, but it’s welcome escapism and it comes with the likes of Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, Stacy Keach, Cliff Robertson and Bruce Campbell turning up with cameos everywhere and they’re loving it as well. Sit back, strap in and fight for your right to be as slick as smooth as Snake whenever you can.