John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. Review

by James Berardinelli (berardin AT bc DOT cybernex DOT net)
August 14th, 1996

    A film review by James Berardinelli
    Copyright 1996 James Berardinelli

RATING (0 TO 10): 7.0
Alternative Scale: *** out of ****

United States, 1996
U.S. Release Date: 8/9/96 (wide)
Running Length: 1:40
MPAA Classification: R (Violence, profanity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Cast: Kurt Russell, Stacey Keach, Georges Corraface, A.J. Langer, Cliff Robertson, Steve Buscemi, Pam Grier, Peter Fonda,
    Valeria Golino, Michelle Forbes, Bruce Campbell
Director: John Carpenter
Producers: Debra Hill and Kurt Russell
Screenplay: John Carpenter & Debra Hill & Kurt Russell Cinematography: Gary B. Kibbe
Music: Shirley Walker and John Carpenter
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures

    Los Angeles has now been destroyed twice in one summer. Is this wish fulfillment for audiences or for the men and women who make movies? Either way, both apocalyptic scenarios are visually impressive, offering arrays of death and disaster as L.A. is reduced to a smoldering shadow of what it once was. In John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM L.A., the cause is a mega-earthquake, not an alien attack as in INDEPENDENCE DAY, but the results are similar.

    The prologue to ESCAPE FROM L.A. takes place shortly after the conclusion of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. On August 23, 2000, the "big one" hits the west coast, severing Los Angeles from the mainland. The new President of the Moral United States (Cliff Robertson, giving an eerily Reagan-esque performance) declares that L.A. is no longer part of the country. It becomes the deportation zone to which all those convicted of moral crimes are sent. Los Angeles is viewed as an island of depravity and violence, populated by psychos, criminals, and other assorted weirdoes -- not that different, some would argue, from what it's like today.

    Fast forward to 2013, where we once again meet the infamous criminal, Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell, reprising the role he first essayed 15 years ago). For a second time, the government needs him for a rescue-and-retrieval mission. This time, the object of his quest isn't a person, but a thing. The President's daughter, Utopia (A. J. Langer), has stolen the remote control unit for a doomsday weapon and given it to a guerrilla leader (George Corraface) on Los Angeles Island. So Snake, who has been injected with a virus that leaves him ten hours to live, has to go in, complete his mission, and escape to get the antidote.

    If this premise sounds an awful lot like that of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, it's no coincidence. John Carpenter isn't just making a sequel to the 1981 cult classic, but, armed with a considerable budget, he's also doing a partial remake (much like the tactic employed by Robert Rodriguez with EL MARIACHI and the subsequent DESPERADO). ESCAPE FROM L.A. follows an almost-identical trajectory to its predecessor, only this time all the action takes place against the backdrop of the Hollywood Hills rather than under the shadow of the World Trade Center.
    All things considered, ESCAPE FROM L.A. is a significant improvement over the first Snake Plisskin adventure. The action sequences are better paced and directed. The erratic, tongue-in-cheek comedy of NEW YORK is back, but, in this picture, it is supplemented by a barbed satire of family values and political correctness. Best of all, however, the basic premise is satisfactorily explored rather than just existing as a jumping-off point. In the previous outing, Snake was dropped in the midst of a generic New York that could have been any abandoned city. Here, Los Angeles is clearly Los Angeles (or, more appropriately, what's left of Los Angeles), and we are given a tour of both the changed geography and the bizarre cultures rising from the ashes. This aspect of the movie, rather than any other, makes ESCAPE FROM L.A. a more fascinating piece of film making.

    There's a shade less atmosphere in L.A. than in NEW YORK, but the production values and set design in the sequel are still top-notch. There are some truly breathtaking sequences, such as the spectacle of a tsunami bearing down on the coast or an overhead shot of what became of Disneyland. Borrowing from BLADE RUNNER and other futuristic features, Carpenter has made ESCAPE FROM L.A. visually striking, and, if audiences aren't already exhausted by this summer's other action fare, it should play well.

    The only returning actor is Kurt Russell, who slips effortlessly into his character as if a decade-and-a-half hadn't passed. Little has changed -- Snake still talks with a Clint Eastwood-like rasp, sports a heavy five o'clock shadow, and openly despises authority. It's a tribute to Russell that, after so long, he can accurately and effectively re-create his first action role. Though Snake may have aged, the self-deprecating, angry core that makes him more than a mere caricature hasn't changed one bit.

    The supporting players are all new. Most of them aren't on screen for very long, and, as a result, don't leave much of an impression. Bruce Campbell, for instance, has a wacky two-minute sequence as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, then isn't seen again. Valerie Golino, Pam Grier, and Peter Fonda fall into the same near-cameo category. Steve Buscemi plays another in his gallery of strange people -- a double-crossing "Map of the Stars" salesman. George Corraface isn't a very effective villain, especially compared to Isaac Hayes' Duke of New York (although they both drive similar style cars). Stacey Keach is the top military honcho in charge of sending Snake into L.A. Suitably hard-bitten, he's a worthy successor to the late Lee Van Cleef.
    ESCAPE FROM L.A. is the first sequel directed by Carpenter, and, as such, represents a change of direction. It's also the best film he's done in quite some time, although considering his recent resume -- VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, and THEY LIVE -- that's not saying much. Will Snake be back again? Probably not, but if he does return, at least there's no shortage of possibilities for the title. Anyone for ESCAPE FROM CHICAGO?

- James Berardinelli
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