Friday, 29 March 2013

Escape From L.A. (1996) - John Carpenter

The eight year old me was obsessed with Han Solo, so much so that all I wanted to do when I grew up was hang with a Wookie and say cool things like 'boring conversation anyway' and 'droids don't pull people's arms out of their sockets when they lose.' Punk may well have changed the cultural landscape for the kids aged fourteen and over in '77, but for us pre-teens the watershed moment was catching George Lucas' third feature film at the cinema. There’d be no more playing war in the school playground after that, for the next decade it was Star Wars and Star Wars only. There were always grumblings about who would play what character and so forth, but ultimately whoever I was supposed to be playing would immediately fade as soon as we started. I was Han Solo, as I suspect were loads of other kids that had been told to be a stormtrooper instead of the guy who’d made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.

That all changed one morning at Upminster train station back in the summer of ’81. As I ascended the stairs towards the exit I caught sight of a poster for Escape From New York. Kurt Russell’s head was floating above the New York skyline with helicopters flying all about it. It was at that exact moment that my loyalties towards Han fell away and my new obsession with the unknown fizzog in front of me began. Han may well have had a cape and thought Tauntaun’s smelt bad on the outside, but this new fella had an eyepatch and the best grimace on his face I’d ever seen. Plus he was called Snake Plissken. How fucking cool was that? Snake. Plissken.

I was way too young to actually go to the cinema and see Escape From New York though, and it would be years before I managed to rent a VHS copy of it. Despite the fact that over the years I'd built up massive expectations for it, it didn’t disappoint. From that opening synth line of the score all the way through to Snake’s kiss off at the end, for the teenage me it was total perfection. Writer/director John Carpenter was at the top of his game back then and his films with Kurt Russell were amongst the best things he ever did. The Russell & Carpenter partnership is up there for me with those great actor/director teams like Eastwood & Siegel or Mifune & Kurosawa. So with all that rambling prologue in mind you can imagine how excited I was when it turned out that Kurt and John were going to make another film together, and not just any film but a sequel to Escape From New York.

I saw Escape From L.A. on it’s opening week. I was disappointed. It was shit. I never watched it again… Until now. Me and a couple of John Carpenter fans were nattering away about some new pictures of John and Kurt posted on Facebook, and the conversation turned to Escape From L.A., and for the first time since ’96 I had a huge hankering to watch it. It couldn’t be that bad, could it? Maybe I’d had such high expectations first time ‘round that I’d been too harsh on it? Possibly? Maybe?

Well as it turns out Escape From L.A. is still an absolutely abysmal film. Shockingly so at times. The bulk of the problem has to be laid at John Carpenter’s feet, since the biggest stumbling block with the film is that it all just feels so damn lazy. Just like all the worst sequels this basically rehashes the plot of the original. So we get the ticking time bomb plot device, Snake having to retrieve something from no mans land and all the rest of it. The thing is Escape from L.A. was made fifteen years after the original, and if you’re going to wait that long to follow up your film you’d better have a damn good reason for doing so in the first place. Don't make something that feels like a cheapo thrown together straight to DVD release. The effects in this film are probably the worst I’ve seen in a major studio film from this period, worse than original Playstation graphics with multiple shots that look unfinished and then some. Maybe the money ran out? It sure looks that way.

On the plus side Kurt Russell is on top form and does the business as Snake, it’s a character that he can easily breathe life into and his growly sub Harry Callahan delivery always works. The rest of the cast range from okay (Stacy Keach, Cliff Robertson) to miscast (Steve Buscemi) to downright shite. Yes Pam Grier and Peter Fonda I’m talking about you. Fonda in particular is wince inducingly awful, cranking up his old hippie dude persona to nauseating effect. Most of the major touchstones of the original are present but in a lesser form, for example the fight to the death arena scene now involves shooting hoops on a basketball court. I kid you not. That’s how bad this is. The only thing that redeems Escape from L.A. a little for me are its last ten minutes which are as good as the original film.

So as far as I’m concerned I’ll hopefully never have the urge to watch this again. It’s awful, and made even worse by the fact that John Carpenter has it in him to put things together on screen in a way that few others can manage. I still hold out some hope that someone will knock up a script that will bring Carpenter and Russell back together, Carpenter would make an ideal choice for a decent comic book adaptaion for instance and Kurt Russell can do no wrong (don't mention Soldier that wasn't his fault all right). Let’s face it, they could never make anything worse than Escape From L.A. Could they?

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