Friday, March 18, 2011

Carpenter's Tools: Escape from L.A.

[Note: This is a stupefyingly belated entry in my John Carpenter retrospective, which I intended to go all the way through his canon but could find scant enthusiasm to continue past In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter's last triumph before a series of mediocre-to-awful films leading up to his present condition. But I am curious to see if I can find redeeming qualities in his late-period work, and finishing his whole filmography will make writing about The Ward that much easier when the time comes. So, at last, I resume my retrospective, some two unnecessary years in the making, with Escape from L.A.]

By 1996, prospects had so soured for John Carpenter that he was reduced to making the sequel to one of his finest features, Escape from New York. Naturally, after the gradual "Disney terraforming" of New York that started in the '90s, the Big Apple no longer held the same reputation it did at the start of the '80s when one suspected that Carpenter did not even need to build sets to film in the urban decay he portrayed. In the mid-90s, Los Angeles, home of uncontrollable gang crime and pollution, became the place to be for hellish futuristic cities. Demolition Man presented an L.A. consumed in flames before an ultra-liberal thought police took over and bleached the place, and Escape from L.A. presents a Los Angeles separated from the mainland by a massive earthquake, leading to a theocratic takeover that condemns L.A. Island to the mythic realm of Sodom and Gomorrah. Where neo-hippie pacifism babied up the city in Stallone's action vehicle, Carpenter's film is the last reflection of his disgust with modern conservatism and its incorporation of the religious right into its framework. Los Angeles, it seems, can never win.

Where that political slant might have made the film somewhat clever, however, it instead ensures that Escape from L.A. feels not only like a retread of its predecessor but of Carpenter's late-'80s work that took square aim at Reagan, most obviously with They Live. Opening with an expository voiceover by a computerized female voice that never shows up again in the film, Escape from L.A. wastes minutes of time by going over extraneous details in the flat reading, undercutting the clever construction of the earthquake hitting Los Angeles with dull, fictional facts and figures that take away from the power of the visuals, which are the high point of otherwise laughable special effects.

And when the action finally begins and characters on-screen begin speaking, we must endure even more background as Snake Plissken arrives in chains at the transfer center to Los Angeles island, where he is to be banished with all the other undesirables. One of the military commanders, Malloy (Stacy Keach) essentially summarizes the plot of Escape from New York and pads out that exposition with tidbits of Snake's life before and after the events of that film. At last, the actual narrative comes to the fore when Malloy plays a hologram recording of the theocratic president's daughter, Utopia, seduced and brainwashed by a Peruvian terrorist named Cuervo Jones, stealing codes for a weaponized satellite system to use against her father and the corrupt United States. The president (Cliff Robertson) wants Snake to infiltrate Los Angeles, retrieve the black box and kill his daughter for treason. Oh, and to make sure Snake obeys, the president injects him with a lethal virus that will kill him in 10 hours unless he gets some antidote that instantly cures him. God, at least the neck bombs kind of made sense.

Sequels deserve to be weighed on their own terms, but how can I step back and evaluate solely what is on the screen before me when everything so blatantly recalls Escape from New York? Snake has to retrieve a MacGuffin and he is given a narrow timeframe in which to do it. And seriously, why do these people keep giving him only a few hours? At least in the first film it coincided with the ransom countdown given for the captured president; here it's just because, and the virus weakens him as time elapses. Way to ensure mission success, Mr. President. Everyone in the prison colony continues to have that double-take recognition of Snake, including saying "I thought you'd be taller" when they confirm it's him.

The key difference between L.A. and New York, and the chief indication that Carpenter still had some cleverness left in him, is in the contrast of aesthetics. While the effects themselves pale in comparison to the brilliant, moody design of seedy decay in the previous film (which looked like what Travis Bickle must have seen in his nightmares), Carpenter's conception of L.A. viciously tears down the city's own issues. The project stagnated in the early-'90s, but in the wake of the '94 quake and the Rodney King riots, Carpenter's farcical view of L.A. tearing itself apart seismically and socially no longer seemed so far-fetched. Shots of cars tearing around streets essentially performing drive-bys on each other (an impossibility in New York, where Hunter S. Thompson said one could not even park, much less drive) are on-the-nose, as is the gratuitous incorporation of landmarks, which the last film largely minimized with exceptions.

But the real delight is in Carpenter's view of the people of L.A., an assortment of niks (peace, beat and freak), punks, gang members all united by the same delusion that exists even after Hollywood sunk into the sea. One wonders if the moral majority president even had to ship anyone into the city to fill it with those unwanted in an uptight, Christian country. Where Carpenter's vision of New York was a slimy underground of sewer rats-turned-human who slunk around corners like greasy shadows, everyone in L.A. has that terminal openness. Snake always descended in New York; here everything is above ground, save for a brief spell in a sewer. At one point, Snake gets captured by organ harvesters controlled by a sort-of plastic surgeon version of Josef Mengele, played by Bruce Campbell (who hilariously has done fake surgery to make his own chin even larger). The cult the man operates is all fish lips and silicone breasts, and in some cases you have to squint to make sure it's just movie makeup on these people.

Sadly, these fleeting moments of wit pass by too quickly, leaving the audience with a series of disconnected, poorly executed action sequences that fail to elicit any unified mood. Carpenter was one of the preeminent atmospheric directors of his day, capable of maintaining a sense of dread from the start of Assault on Precinct 13 pretty much through the end of The Thing. Each sequence just happens, usually without justification and invariably involving stunts so ridiculous one can only react to Carpenter's retrospective view that the script was "too campy" with a "Ya think?"

A CGI sequence of Snake's submersible careening around the "San Fernando Sea" lacks the genuinely fun camp of Snake's glide into New York and instead drags on far too long with lackluster effects. A chase sequence involving Plissken speeding after Cuervo's motorcade on a motorcycle lacks energy and is incoherent despite Carpenter's trademark use of longer, steadier takes. A climactic moment places Snake before a screaming mob in a modern day coliseum, where he can ensure his survival not by fighting but...scoring a basketball trick from the other end of the court. I haven't even mentioned the hang-gliding scene. I will, however, talk about the surfing. If Carpenter's goal with his script was to play up all the various inanities of Los Angeles, he might have succeeded, but when he executes sequences like Snake Plissken surfing fast enough to keep up with a speeding car, he overplays his hand and becomes guilty of the excess and stupidity he portrays in his Hollywood stereotypes.

Some moments amused me. Seeing Snake tied up in the background struggling to get free as Cuervo patches in a video feed to the president to taunt him is hilarious, and some of the lines are so stilted that they actually work as comedy instead of weighing down the narrative. When the president offers his ultimatum to Snake, he tells the anti-hero that his freedom is on the line. Russell, jaw clenched around a piece of scenery, growls "That died in America a long time ago!" Carpenter at least had the good sense to make excellent use of Steve Buscemi, who plays the waterlogged remnant of Hollywood's old soul: a huckster who sells post-apocalyptic "star maps," orchestrates captures and always manages to slime his way out of trouble like any good agent, Eddie lets Buscemi run that big-talkin' motormouth of his, even saving him from death a few times just so he can stick around a bit longer.

Every so often, we even get a glimpse of Carpenter's old sense of workman detail. He lights and blocks Russell in an early scene so his shadow breaks along both adjoining walls instead of just one, and when physical objects such as wrecked cars and grimy canvas tents appear for Carpenter to work around, the director flirts with his old atmospheric tone and keen eye for mise-en-scéne.

But it's all for naught. Characters repeatedly use the line "The more things change, the more they stay the same," but the same is true for Escape from L.A. itself. It plays around with the change in setting but ultimately hedges so closely to the original plot that the differences amount to nothing more than tattered, dusty window dressing. Russell purportedly fought hard to get this sequel made, having loved the character and rightly assumed fans would love to see more of Snake, and he is by far the saving grace of the film. Saddled with some of the thickest writing the already-blunt Carpenter/Hill team ever wrote, Russell still has a ball. His series of hisses, grunts and death stares make for nonstop hilarity. Too bad its the only intentional comedy that works. As gung-ho as his dear friend might have been for the project, Carpenter's weariness and bitter attitude toward L.A. and Hollywood roll off him in every frame. But his bark lacks follow-up bite, and Escape from L.A. ultimately feels like a wounded kid sulking off to lick his wounds and curse his tormenting bully under his breath rather than confront him head-on. By the time Snake gets an all-too-familiar last laugh and delivers an absurd final message directly to the audience, one can only marvel at how badly Tinseltown whipped a director who wanted nothing more than to offer solidly crafted material for the studios who spurned him. What a shame.

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