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Escape From LA
Tonight's Feature Presentation

ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996)

Starring: Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi, George Corraface, Stacy Keach, Cliff Robertson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Campbell

Written By: John Carpenter, Debra Hill, Kurt Russell Directed By: John Carpenter

The Short Version

Snake Plissken is Kurt Russell’s favorite role, and it shows.

John Carpenter has all respect and no reverence, and it’s a blast!

Surfing up a ruined Wilshire Boulevard with Peter Fonda and Kurt Russell!  Duuuude!

Bruce Campbell!  Woot!

If you can’t have fun with this, check your pulse.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEESE POPCORN.

Grab a bag and snack away.  No complications required.


Pairs Well With...

CORONA.

It’d be so easy to say Cuervo because of the bad guy’s name, but Escape From LA is a beer movie.  Split the difference and grab some Corona.  I seriously doubt that Snake would bother with a lime.

“You might have survived Cleveland. You might have escaped from New York. But this is LA, vato. And you're about to find out that this fucking city can kill anybody!”


The story goes that out of all the roles Kurt Russell has ever played, Snake Plissken from John Carpenter’s Escape From New York was always his favorite.  Since the mid-80s, he and Carpenter had been on-and-off discussing a sequel.  Finally, after ten years of this, Russell went into his closet, pulled out the original Snake Plissken costume (which he’d kept from the original 1981 film), put it on, and essentially said, “Dude, the costume still fits.  Let’s get this thing made before it doesn’t.”

Believe it, folks.

Escape From LA is a bawdy love letter to the oh-shit-the-world’s-screwed / post-disaster genre.  And no, by “bawdy” I don’t mean anything sexual – none of that to be had here, folks, and it doesn’t need any – what I mean is that there’s no reverence and no romance to its endearments.  Carpenter just opens the book and has a frat party with it.  The good news is that as fans of this sort of thing, we’re all part of the frat, so we get to watch!

You are part of the frat, right?  It’s a lot more fun if you are.  Otherwise it’s just going to look like strung together chaos.  But then again, strung together chaos can be fun for the uninitiated, too, right?  Just like a frat party!  The moral here, folks, is that as long as you remember the environment you’re in, it’s all good.

Speaking of “moral”, let’s set up our post-disaster world, shall we?

“Back” in 1998, an Extreme Christian politician (Cliff Robertson; go ahead and make the Cliff Robertson as Pat Robertson jokes if you want) predicted that in the year 2000, Los Angeles would be punished for its sins with a giant earthquake.  And whaddaya know?  Halfway through 2000, The Big One hits, and what was the City of Los Angeles becomes Los Angeles Island.  The American voting public responds by immediately amending the Constitution and voting Mr. (Unnamed) Christian to the new post of President For Life.  The United States then becomes the Extreme Moral Right Wing Republic Of Jesusland (not its official name), and all “immorality” – including drinking, fornication, atheism, being a member of any non-Christian religion of any kind, etc. – is immediately made a criminal offense.  Criminals are stripped of citizenship and deported to LA, which has been officially declared to be not a part of the US, and left to rot in barbarism.  Those who don’t want to be deported may choose to “repent” and be electrocuted immediately.

The most frightening part about all of this is that it’s not really all that farfetched of a premise.  But anyway.

Flash forward to the future (ahem) of 2013.  It turns out that the President’s daughter has some issues, so she’s stolen the one and only controller for America’s space-based doomsday weapon, and taken it to LA.  Her timing’s horrible, because the various nations of Central and South America, being sick of the President’s crap, are just a few hours from launching an invasion, under the command of LA-based bad man Cuervo Jones (George Corraface, doing his best Che Guevara Goes Hollywood impression).  Fortunately, America has just arrested the notorious Snake Plissken, and they’ve got an offer Snake can’t refuse: go to LA and get the controller back.  In less than ten hours.  Or, y’know, die trying.

Switch the details, and it sounds a lot like the plot to Escape From New York.  I admit that I fail to understand the complaints here.  If you were already a fan, that’s exactly what you expected, and almost certainly exactly what you wanted.  If you weren’t, then this is all new to you anyway, so you’re not going to know the difference, right?  Move on!

And no, you don’t need to have seen Escape From New York first to enjoy Escape From LA.  Sure, it’ll help, but everything is spelled out plainly enough that you’ll understand everything you need to know to follow the action.  And the action, as noted, is a frat party.  A wild, chaotic frat party.  As it turns out, John Carpenter and company have invited some of our favorite frat brothers and sisters to come out and play.

Peter Fonda – a man whom I imagine would be welcome at any frat house in the world, no questions asked – is Pipeline, a cool dude whose mission in LA is to just kick back and surf.  I would be shocked if this part wasn’t written just for him; in any case, he owns it like second nature.  Thanks to Pipeline, we are treated to the amazing coolness of watching he and Snake surf down the flooded ruin of Wilshire Boulevard… followed by Snake hopping off the surfboard and on to a passing convertible!

Bruce Campbell – perennial favorite of B movie fans everywhere – it the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, who must keep his plastic surgery addicted patients alive and happy with a constant supply of fresh body parts.  This premise also seems disturbingly plausible.  Campbell, as always, is a treat, even with less than five minutes of screen time.

Pam Grier – old school blaxploitation movie legend and action favorite – is “Her She,” who used to be a dude in Cleveland before some extra special surgery and exile to LA.  Grier can always be counted on for a memorable performance, and she certainly doesn’t disappoint here.  Oh, and right after we meet her, we get to do the hang glider sequence!  Yes!  Hang gliders!

Steve Buscemi – a man who has perfected the greaseball role, despite being a very honorable fellow in real life (surprise; he’s a volunteer firefighter) – is Maps to the Stars Eddie, who is, whaddaya know, a greaseball.  Buscemi plays the part we’ve all come to know and love from him and even has a little more fun than usual with it; I dare you to picture anyone else in this role.  If you can, you’re not being serious.

Not that Escape From LA really gives much of a damn about being serious, of course.  This is a movie about being irreverent and having a blast while doing it.  The above wasn’t enough for you?  How about the Happy Kingdom By The Sea, which is of course Another Kingdom That Wasn’t Going To Give Carpenter Rights To Use It, and which is instead mercilessly needled with bankruptcy jokes while the cast blows it up.  Universal Studios was nice and played along, so their stuff gets trashed a bit more nicely, and they even get a Jaws reference.  Not wanting to leave his own distributor out, Carpenter makes sure to blow up a mountain ride at the Happy Kingdom which looks suspiciously like the Paramount logo.  Reverence?  Who needs it?

And while we’re at it, why do all the trial to the death challenges have to involve gunfights or knife fights or neo-gladiator stuff?  How about One Man Basketball To The Death at the Hollywood Bowl?  The rules are simple, as explained by Cuervo Jones: “Two hoops, full court. Ten-second shot clock. Miss a shot, you get shot. Shot clock buzzer goes off before you shoot, you get shot. Two points for a basket; no three-point bullshit. All you gotta do is get ten points. That's it.”  And then, of course, after the pause for effect, “By the way.  Nobody's ever walked off that court alive. Nobody.” 

I’m going to assume that it’s not a spoiler to suggest that Snake Plissken makes it.  I’m telling you this because the behind-the-scenes is just too cool not to share.  Kurt Russell, consummate professional and awesome guy that he is, not only wanted to make this movie while the costume still fit, but he also wanted the basketball scene to be honest.  So he practiced.  Practiced to the point where there wasn’t a stunt basketball player for the scene.  He makes every shot himself, legit… including from full court.  Rock on, sir!

Don’t worry, though; for action movie traditionalists, there are still plenty of gun battles and some good old fashioned car and motorcycle chases.  Footraces and romps through the sewer, too.  Fear not, my friends, John Carpenter and company do have you covered from all angles.

Now, you might notice, as all of this is happening, that on those occasions where the CG effects kick in, it’s really, really obvious.  If you care, have another drink, because you’re not in the right frame of mind yet.  This is all about fun, people.  If you’re all about using the correct fork at dinner, perfectly straight neckties, and not being able to spot the screen line around the actor, you’re in the wrong movie.  Besides, this is the mid 90s.  Super clean CGI wasn’t quite there yet.  (Many would argue that it still isn’t.)

By the time all is said and done and we get to the end of the story, we are definitely not disappointed.  This one’s an asskicker, and, oh yeah, Kurt Russell wrote it himself.  I’ll leave it to you to see how cool it is.

Bottom line, Escape From LA is a fun, wall-to-wall, irreverent love letter to its genre, perhaps best summed up with a two line exchange between the President’s daughter and Cuervo Jones:

“This is insane!”

“It is.  That’s the point.”

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011

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