Escape from Los Angeles: Movie Review

Fifteen years after the legendary Escape from New York (1981), John Carpenter had changed. Hollywood had slammed the door in his face several times, most notably after The Thing (1982) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and he had made it clear that the feeling was mutual by making Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988), two of his darkest and pessimistic movies. Over time, the Maestro had also tried to return to order by working on Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) and Village of the Damned (1995), but it didn’t work. In 1996, John Carpenter decided to shout out to the world what he thought of Hollywood and the United States. Ladies and gentlemen, Escape from Los Angeles.

Not that the first film with Snake Plissken was particularly subtle… There was an inept President of the United States, after all! But in this sequel Cliff Robertson plays a fascist bigot, which ups the ante. Lee Van Cleef wasn’t exactly a nice person, but here Stacy Keach and Michelle Forbes (the legendary Ro Laren of The Next Generation) are at the head of a practically Nazi army. Plus, the United States is a dictatorship whose citizens have practically no freedom, Hollywood is a giant dumpster fire, and Los Angeles is populated by people who use plastic surgery on a daily basis. There you go, now you know what 1996’s John Carpenter thought of the place he was living in. It’s a miracle that he was allowed to make three more films in the next 24 years. And this makes me extremely sad. But let’s get back to the movie!

In reality there’s little to say: Snake is back, but this time his mission is in Los Angeles instead of New York. He must recover the president’s daughter (AJ Langer) this time, and there’s a minidisc instead of an audio cassette. And, once again, Snake finds a beautiful girl who doesn’t get to the end alive (Valeria Golino), a very talkative guy drives him around in his car (Steve Buscemi), Snake reunites with an old partner who had betrayed him (Pam Grier), and fights in a arena for the delight of a villain who rules the city (Georges Corraface). In short, Escape from Los Angeles is at the same time a perfect sequel and also a middle finger raised to Hollywood that feeds on sequels and is now saturated with them (now more than in the nineties, but we know that Carpenter has always been ahead of his time).

There are so many unforgettable scenes: the Bangkok style shooting, Dr. Bruce Campbell’s clinic (did I mention that the cast of this film is stellar?), the basketball scene (basketball was everywhere in the 90s, think of Alien: Resurrection, 1997)… And of course I must mention the scene in which Kurt Russell and Peter Fonda (he’s in it too!) ride the giant wave! It’s impossible to forget that one, even if it’s more or less the conscious equivalent of Fonzie jumping the shark in Happy Days

Throughout the film, one gets the impression that Carpenter deliberately alternated dark scenes (for example, the prisoners who can choose to repent and be fried in the electric chair instead of going to Los Angeles, the last member of the rescue team used as a target for the villains’ darts, the clinic where humans are used to supply body parts to monsters devastated by plastic surgery…) and ridiculous ones (like surfing or the shark trying to bite Snake’s submarine…). Maybe this meant that the movie was not supposed to be taken seriously at all? If that was the intention, I guess no one got it in Hollywood, as John was allowed to fire two more cartridges (Vampires in 1997 and Ghosts of Mars, 2001) before disappearing for a whole decade.

Whatever the truth is, if taken with the right dose of irony, Escape from Los Angeles is a funny movie with a great Kurt Russell protagonist, with some exceptional music (not only by Carpenter himself: you can hear Tool at some point!), and with a camera work and scene composition wich are nothing less than amazing. The movie suffers a bit for the aging of the digital effects of the mid-nineties, but it almost seems to be meant to feel that way, as if Carpenter wanted the fake effects look like the fake plastic faces of the Hollywood stars!

I conclude by saying that, even if no one considers this film as one of the best made by John Carpenter and I won’t be the first to do it, I find it a funny movie, well shot, and with a clear subtext which is even more relevant today than back in the day (2016-2020’s  Donald Trump is practically the president that Carpenter had imagined in Escape from Los Angeles!). In short, this is a true cult movie, ciao!

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