Tuesday, August 10, 2010
The Future Is Right Now
John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM L.A. played as a huge disappointment when it came out back in August 1996 with a plot that was seemingly lacking, uninspired action, lousy special effects, a waste of some good actors and maybe way too much of a feeling of been there, done that. Kurt Russell was still cool as Snake Plissken in this belated sequel to 1981’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, no doubt about it, but they hadn’t come up with something appropriately cool to go around him. And yet all these years later after numerous repeat viewings on VHS and DVD I feel kind of attached to the thing. There was one night a several years ago when I had a lengthy phone conversation with a friend about who knows what. ESCAPE FROM L.A. was on one of the networks and I had it going with the sound off. Well into our conversation it came out that my friend also had been watching it with the sound off and he commented on how strange it was that we hadn’t said anything. I guess it’s the sort of movie that you keep in the background, liking that it’s there, but not really admitting to it. At least, maybe that’s the case for me. The effects are still pretty terrible and a few things that don’t work throughout still bug me but as it turns out it’s aged extremely well, maybe because of its own unique tone that sets it apart from the first film, maybe also because of a certain prescience it contains, it’s proven to be rewarding for me to return to for some time now. I gladly went to see it a few years ago during a “Los Angeles Destroys Itself” series at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood and there have been a number of Friday nights where it’s become the ideal movie to put on once again, while trying to put all the events of the past week out of the brain, escaping from the city in its most apocalyptic version (appropriately, it’s even set on a Friday night). The lesson here might also be that no matter how lousy certain effects are it eventually becomes undeniable how much a certain amount of meat on the bone can help how a movie ages over time while you begin to pay attention to what’s really there.
In 2013, thirteen ears after a massive earthquake has essentially destroyed L.A., resulting in the election of a God-fearing theocrat (Cliff Robertson) as “President for life”, the U.S. is a different place, a new “moral America” which allows no smoking, drinking, sex, freedom of religion or other freedoms and in which those not willing to conform are sent directly to what is now the island of Los Angeles, sentenced there for life. When the president’s rebellious daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer, later of the unfortunately short-lived sitcom IT’S LIKE, YOU KNOW) who has been brainwashed by revolutionary Cuervo Jones (George Corraface) escapes to the island with a potentially dangerous black box, the only choice the President and Commander Malloy (Stacy Keach) of the United States Police Force have is to recruit the recently captured Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), eyepatch and all, to recover the black box and deal with Utopia. Plissken of course has no interest in doing them any favors but when he’s informed that he’s just been infected with the man made Plutoxin 7 virus that only they have the antidote for, he realizes that he has no choice to go in there, do the job however he can and escape from the island of L.A. before the clock on his life runs out.
The icy cool, sparse feel of the original ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is done away with in favor of an approach that is bigger, broader and noisier as it clearly tries to use every piece of the bigger budget they have this time around. Carpenter raised the bar pretty high for himself with the original (and a few of his other films, for that matter) so the seeming halfhearted vibe it gave off made it difficult not to play like a letdown when it first opened. Those digital effects are almost embarrassingly bad at times, a fact that becomes very amplified on a big screen, and after Isaac Hayes’s Duke of New York (A-Number-One) in the first film George Corraface’s Che-lookalike adversary Cuervo Jones just feels like a satirical element that never quite becomes anything. Peter Fonda’s lackluster underplaying of his aging surfer dude seems to say something about the film as a whole—what should play as total madness in this environment just kind of cruises along, never becoming anywhere near as crazy as it should be, content to just go at random from one set piece to the next. Even the way the story packs itself into such a tight timeframe of around ten hours for Plissken to complete his mission has always bugged me—spanning a complete day, the original film managed to flow somewhat better but I imagine Carpenter never liked having to incapacitate his lead character for a section to avoid shooting in daylight and this was his solution. It does make perfect sense to paint this nasty future as one long seemingly endless night but forced into covering so few hours causes things to move in too much of a rush.
Though this story is almost as much of a remake as it is a sequel, in some ways that could be seen as yet another John Carpenter emulation of Howard Hawks, who also blatantly redid the same story several times because he felt that if it worked once it would work just as well again. But though a few plot points are maybe more convoluted than they need to be in the script written by Carpenter, Russell and producer Debra Hill (of course, to simplify those pieces would probably make them too much like the first film), it all goes much further with the politics than even the nihilistic, ‘fuck everyone’ feel of the original. With this film it somehow becomes a melding of Carpenter’s liberalism and star Russell’s own libertarianism, maybe the two friends finding common ground to make a statement about the madness they saw beginning to happen to the world. As a result, fourteen years after it came out to a pretty negative response the film seems not only amusingly prescient in terms of what the country went through during the 2000s but the metaphor of a Los Angeles literally separated from the rest of the country works pretty damn great when looked at now.
There’s also the feeling I get that Carpenter is actually interested in Los Angeles, as opposed to his use of New York which he really just presented for the most part as a big, mean city with very little regard for the landmarks we all know with the obvious exception of the prevalent Twin Towers. The targets here are broad—plastic surgery-obsessed ghouls in Beverly Hills, Steve Buscemi’s fast talking agent, surfing down ‘Wilshire Canyon’ with spaced out Peter Fonda—but the satire keeps things coming and the wide variety of characterizations that are tossed into the mix—sometimes without even fully explaining who they are at first—prevents it from ever becoming dull. And, at times, it gets the balance of the humor right—Snake Plissken forced to walk on a treadmill in the background as Cuervo makes his demands known is actually pretty funny. It seems to embrace how broad it can be from the way each character is costumed and made up as if ready for a cartoon series based on the film to the chatter of the dialogue which replaces the infamous “Heard you were dead,” from the first film with alternating “I thought you’d be taller,” or various condolences for whatever happened to Snake in Cleveland. His encounter with Valeria Golino’s ‘Muslim from South Dakota’ also seems to capture the feel of odd late night encounters you sometimes have with people around here. The extra level of intimacy between the two that develops out of nowhere fast never violates Plissken’s characterization and brings a great deal of weight to things that it wouldn’t have otherwise. His simple phrase to her, “The future is right now,” could be used as a mantra—no point in living for when things are going to happen, just keep moving ahead in the moment which is all we ever really need to know about him. I always kind of wish that her character could have tagged along with him for more of the movie or maybe I just like watching Valeria Golino here. The swipe at Disneyland with the climax set at ‘The Happy Kingdom’ feels kind of dated now and I should point out that the Chinese Twin Theaters seen when Snake walks by Grauman’s (where I saw this film on opening night, incidentally) were long gone when this film’s Big One hit on 8/23/00 but many of the elements that bugged me way back then don’t bother me so much anymore. By this point, the plot feels secondary to the characters and satire so the film has become its own thing and the final choice that Plissken makes in the end (“You’d better hope I don’t make it back,” he warns early on—the ending was by all accounts provided by Kurt Russell, so make of that what you will) feels about as appropriate as I could possibly imagine in this L.A. we’re living in these days. Yes, it’s hard not to wish that the effects were even slightly better than they are—I’m not even sure how certain things like the surfing scene could really be made to work anyway—but I’ve long since stopped dwelling on them and in some ways I don’t even really care all that much anymore. I wonder if they ever really bothered Carpenter either.
Even with its various good points there is something about the overly hectic feel of the film that feels almost too big for Carpenter’s sparse aesthetic with too many of the action scenes (involving digital effects or not) ultimately feeling like they never quite have the proper oomph as if maybe the director either didn’t have the time or the inclination to achieve all that was necessary. The motorcycle chase along Sunset in particular feels like the very definition of listless. As it is, it sometimes feels like the director is having the most fun when he doesn’t have to deal with those elements, whether it’s pausing to have Stacy Keach’s Malloy spray some mist on the plants at his desk or Snake Plissken deciding to just have a seat at a moment where he doesn’t know what to do next. Even at one point during the huge climax the hero and villain launch into a good old-fashioned fist fight and it’s hard not to wonder if the director is enjoying working out this man to man struggle in the middle of all this massive stuntwork, happy to get back to basics. I guess it’s these moments of flavor, combined with the feel that the movie seems to understand the nature of living in an island named L.A. that’s separated from the rest of the world (“Dark Paradise” as Plissken calls it) that stay with me, something that will no doubt lead to further Friday night viewings that I imagine will continue all the way to the year 2013 and beyond.
Kurt Russell is, no surprise, completely and totally Snake Plissken, keeping his ultra-cool no matter how crazy things get and it’s a pleasure to follow him with his spare bits of dialogue through this Los Angeles. Stacy Keach brings a great amount of quiet strength to his role as Cmdr. Malloy, teetering on the divide between being likable and snide nastiness as this film’s Lee Van Cleef equivalent (that said, I always kind of wished this role had been played by Tom Atkins reprising his role from the first film which could have added some depth to things). Steve Buscemi is maybe a touch too goofy as Map-to-the-Stars Eddie but still likable, while Michelle Forbes is always interesting to watch in her quiet authority as Keach’s second in command. Valeria Golino is quirkily affecting as Taslima and A.J. Langer works well as the too-naïve Utopia but Pam Grier’s late appearance as Hershe Las Palmas never gets the chance to have any real effect even if she does have a cool introduction. I may be admitting to how much I’ve come to like this film but I’ll also put out there the possibility that no film which wastes Pam Grier’s presence can be considered a total success. George Corraface was actually cast in the lead role of David Lean’s never-made NOSTROMO back in the 80s but here he never comes off quite as charismatic or villainous as it feels he should be as Cuervo Jones, despite a pretty good voice. Bruce Campbell is slyly amusing in his (too) brief appearance as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, Cliff Robertson nails the right kind of arrogance and pathetic cluelessness as the power mad Christian President, Robert Carradine is unrecognizable as a skinhead, Leland Orser enjoyably spits out a huge amount of exposition about the MacGuffin and if Paul Bartel had any dialogue playing “Congressman” it was left on the cutting room floor. In the pan and scan version he’s totally cut out. Like the film itself, Shirley Walker’s score movies away from Carpenter’s steady keyboard sound of the past towards a feel that is big and symphonic, mixing Carpenter’s original theme with her own material. It all adds immeasurably to the film mixing horns, electronics, surf rock (her music even almost sells the surfing sequence) and a spaghetti western flavor in a way that works extremely well and at its very best is a total blast.
Making a belated sequel is always a difficult task whether the director is John Carpenter or Francis Ford Coppola, not to mention George Lucas, with the end result always difficult to live up to those years of expectations. ESCAPE FROM L.A. satisfied few people when it was released but the film has survived as something that fits right in with its director’s filmography, playing today as individualistic as his very best work even if the scale of it possibly got away from him at a certain point. It satisfies as another look at the character of Snake Plissken as well as the mad future he occupies but its darker satirical elements have also aged along with the world in a way that makes the film more effective than it once was. The digital effects may have gotten better in summer movies all these years later but the personality of a film like this has mostly been drained out, the fun replaced by an assault of sound and fury, no ideas of any kind to be found at all, nothing to connect those films to “the human race” as Snake Plissken himself says. If its director wasn’t so concerned about the quality of the film’s effects maybe that’s because he was focused on what were to him, in his own style of filmmaking, more important matters. Hopefully some form of that approach to creating movies with genuine personality and humanity will survive in the future. Just like Snake Plissken.