In the first five minutes of Escape From L.A., director John Carpenter utterly lays waste to Los Angelesand you can't help but love the guy for doing it. You can almost feel the glee emanating from the screen as one Hollywood icon after another tumbles to the ground, the victim of Carpenter's satiric impulses. Capitol Records! Universal Studios! The Biltmore Hotel! All in smoking ruins.
What makes all this destruction so interesting is that it's confirmation of our current political leaders' (both Democratic and Republican) contention that Los Angeles is a modern-day Sodom, the source of all evil in our country. In fact, in this five-minute prologue a presidential candidate (Cliff Robertson) predicts God's wrath upon that cursed land and is proven correct as a giant earthquake and tidal wave destroy the city and render it an island.
Elected soon after, he immediately rewrites the Constitution to make himself President-for-life. He then declares the U.S. morally pure (no smoking, no drinking, no red meat), banishing anyone who disagrees with his policies to the pits of L.A. Could this not be the secret dream of nearly every politician on Capitol Hill todayto elevate himself to perfect virtuosity while kicking a convenient scapegoat? (Hello, Mr. Dole, meet Mr. Clinton )
Punishing L.A. for its supposed sins is just the beginning of Carpenter's fun as he creates a highly entertaining adventure of comic book action and morbid satire. Escape From L.A is the B-Movie event of the summer (sorry, ID4).
Of course, Carpenter is at his best making cheesy thrillers (Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China), but he's also an underrated satirist. They Live, ostensibly an invaders-from-Mars movie, made hay out of 80s yuppie conformity (the aliens hid beneath the guise of young executives). Likewise, 1981's Escape From New York took our worst fears of the Big Applewhich was mired in economic collapse at the timeand amplified them tenfold. Carpenter is that often ignored auteura film maker with "A" class talent happily making "B" class genre movies. Campy, goofy, but usually effective, Carpenter's films are often critically slagged even as they become cult hits. (For all the protests over its "icky" special effects, Carpenter's The Thing was nevertheless scary as hell.)
With Escape From L.A., Carpenter returns to familiar terrain, but one that's ready for a little rearranging. Just as in Escape From New York, badass cowboy Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell) is coerced by a brutish government official (Stacy Keach) to undertake a deadly, one-man mission. It appears that the President's daughter, Utopia (A. J. Langer) has stolen the controls to a doomsday device and has joined L.A.'s rebel leader, Cuervo Jones (George Corraface). Plisskin has 10 hours to get that "black box" back before he dies from a killer virus injected into his bloodstream. In other words, it's precisely the same plot as Escape From New York (in which Plisskin had to rescue an earlier President), but Carpenter's dark sense of humor is more evident here, making L.A. even more enjoyable if not quite as fresh.
Even after being all but annihilated, Carpenter's L.A. is still L.A., full of hip nightclubs, drive-by shootings, and sex in the streets. The remnants of the Beverly Hills Hotel have become the home of a cult of plastic surgery-worshipping mutants who capture people and have their body parts sewn onto them by the "Surgeon General of Beverly Hills" (Bruce Campbell). The Coliseum holds Romanesque battles to the death involving basketball. And surfers ride tsunamis down Wilshire Boulevard.
Populating this bleak world is an impeccable cast of supporting actors. Besides Keach, Campbell, and Robertson, we've got Peter Fonda as a burnt-out surfer dude, Pam Grier as a transsexual crime lord, Michelle Forbes (yes, Ensign Ro, the only character with a bad attitude from Star Trek: The Next Generation) as a government lackey, and (God bless him!) the can-do-no-wrong Steve Buscemi as a fast-talking talent agent/thug.
Amid this embarrassment of riches comes Russell, who mostly grits his teeth and glowers but looks real cool while doing it. But you've got to hand it to him: Russell doesn't mind looking less than heroic or even making fun of his character (note: look for the treadmill scene), something other leading men would never have the guts to do.
If you like John Carpenter's blend of B-movie action and middle-minded satire, Escape From L.A. is the summer's best surprise in this season of disappointments. See it before it becomes a cult video.