Mad Max and the Planet of the Apes sequels may have paved the way for it, but John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) was the first movie to look at the not-too-distant future of American life and see a junk pile, an urban dream falling apart. Even the hero was falling apart: Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken wore an eye patch and a burnout scowl. The film was too crudely made to qualify as a ”vision” (that would come later, with Blade Runner and RoboCop), but what kept you watching was the novelty of the premise — Manhattan as an entropic sci-fi comic-book hell.
By now, that decaying-future image pops up once a month or so (most recent version: Barb Wire). Carpenter, though, hasn’t lost his sense of timing. John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A. comes along at the perfect moment to honor the passing of the torch from New York to Los Angeles as America’s official Capital of the Apocalypse.
Once again, Snake has to enter a sprawling urban prison zone and, with a deadly virus implanted in his blood, carry out a suicide mission. I have no idea why Russell is doing a brazen Clint Eastwood impersonation, but I do know that no one who looks this good need croak out his lines in this steely a whisper. Carpenter’s L.A. suggests a Bosnian refugee camp outfitted by Frederick’s of Hollywood. Every so often, we get to feast our eyes upon a trashed landmark — cheesy B-movie mock-ups of the Capitol Records tower and the Beverly Hills Hotel lying in ruins. Carpenter never was the filmmaker his cult claimed him to be, but in Escape From L.A., he at least has the instinct to keep his hero moving, like some leather-biker Candide. Among Snake’s more amusing pit stops: a gladiatorial basketball game in the L.A. Coliseum and a cosmetics emporium run by the ”Surgeon General of Beverly Hills.” C+