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The 1981 junk classic Escape from New York depicts a future in which Manhattan has become a hellish, walled-off prison colony. The year? 1997. Well, okay, 1997 is here, and as I look out my window, I see a New York in which Disney has a store on 42nd Street, the upper Hudson has been declared safe for fishing, and the murder rate’s the lowest since ’68.

With reality so rudely unaccommodating, it makes sense that filmmaker John Carpenter took his belated sequel out West, to America’s new Nastiness Capital, in Escape from L.A. But if he wanted us to take him seriously, why did he deliver a grunt-for-grunt remake?

The original Escape From New York is hardly straight-faced. In fact, its small but vocal home video cult (which prompted an overhyped ”director’s cut” tape release, as well as the de rigueur laserdisc) isn’t due to its logy action sequences or inventively cheap special effects but to the dark, B-movie wit that infuses everything from concept to performances to dialogue.

It’s helpful to remember, too, that in 1981 the casting of Kurt Russell — still that nice boy from The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes to most moviegoers — as an Eastwood-esque antihero named Snake Plissken was downright subversive. Russell was clearly aching to bust out of a rut, and Snake — a war hero-turned-career criminal who is forced to rescue the hostage President (wimpy Donald Pleasence) from penal Manhattan — redefined the actor’s image in one grungy move.

To back up his star, Carpenter hired a whole raft of sneering pop-culture flotsam. Soul Daddy-o Isaac Hayes plays the prison island’s big cheese, spaghetti-Western star Lee Van Cleef is the top cop, and good old Ernest Borgnine is the last cabbie left in New York (with doo-wop in his tape deck, no less!). Best of all, the movie’s thoroughly jaundiced outlook mirrored New York’s actual hell-in-a-handbasket morale around 1981.

What with drive-bys, mud slides, riots, and a film industry deeply worth mocking, you’d think L.A. circa 1996 would be ripe for apocalyptic parody. So it’s frustrating to report that Carpenter not only misses his targets in Escape From L.A. — he rarely even takes aim. The year is 2013, and Snake (Russell again) is sent to the post-earthquake isle of L.A., where the conservative U.S. government is relocating all undesirables; other than that, it’s the same old same old, right down to Plissken’s raspy catchphrases.

Once again, our hero does the government’s bidding by dint of an implanted ”timer” (explosives in the original; a disease here). Plissken has to rescue the President’s daughter (A.J. Langer, from TV’s My So-Called Life) and retrieve a black box the feds need (like the audiotape in New York). Once in the city, he befriends a woman who is quickly, randomly killed (Season Hubley in New York, Valeria Golino in L.A.). There’s another tough guy (George Corraface), aided by another turncoat techno-weenie played by a hip actor (Harry Dean Stanton then, Steve Buscemi now). Zonked-out Peter Fonda has the Borgnine role, as a surfer dude who helps Snake out of a jam. If not for some jibes at political correctness and a wild cameo by Bruce Campbell (Ellen) as the surgeon general of Beverly Hills, the movie could just as easily take place in Schenectady.

There is one aspect of Escape From L.A. that differs from the original: the special effects. They’re worse. Escape From New York suggested a ruined Manhattan through cannily shadowed sets and smart matte work. L.A., instead, enlists computer-generated effects that look like outtakes from a CD-ROM thriller (the association is only heightened when seen on a small TV screen). At the rate Carpenter is making his Escapes, the next one may well be distributed on a CD-ROM. But maybe he should set it in Fort Lauderdale. And have Snake rocket in on a nuclear wheelchair to rescue the President’s grandma.
Escape From New York: B
Escape From L.A.: C

Escape From L.A.
  • Movie
  • John Carpenter