If it were possible for certain films to have an odor, Escape from L.A. would definitely be on that list. As each grimy, soot-stained scene crept along, I could almost smell burning tires, sweat, and frothy malt liquor. It’s as if “post-apocalyptic” simply means a future where no one showers.
All that description essentially functions as both compliment and insult. In delivering a film so visually ripe, legendary director John Carpenter aims to deliver a world where the fruits of human depravity have ripened to the point of rotting. On that front, he succeeds admirably. At the same time, Escape from L.A. also bears some of the burden of its predecessor: As a macabre sci-fi comedy, Carpenter’s opus is eccentric, wearying, and much too scuzzy for its own good. I’ve never described a film as fragrant, but there it is.
Set sixteen years after Escape New York–and I’ll assume you’ve experienced that cult classic before venturing further into this review–L.A. finds Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) as the prisoner of an American police state. It seems that our country is in the grips of a moral warlord (Cliff Robertson) who rules with the combined zeal of an oily televangelist and a ruthless autocrat. (We’d never let that kinda thing happen in real life…would we?) This cruel president has decreed that Los Angeles become a cordoned gulag, where all the spiritually unfit and undesirable can wallow in the shambling Babylon that Hollywood built. As the film opens, ol’ Snake has been sentenced to the hellscape that is Ventura Boulevard.
Before Lt. Plissken can walk the Sunset Strip, the president has a proposal, because of course he does. Turns out, the president’s daughter has defected to the cause of Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), an activist-gangster who feels like a cross between Che Guevara and a Die Hard villain. Cuervo has used the president’s daughter to get ahold of some lethal tech that…blah, blah, blah. Anyway, if Plissken retrieves said tech, he and his leather jacket go free. Fail, and our hero is deader than disco.
Basically, Carpenter uses that sprawling canvas to paint his dishwatery landscape, replete with an assortment of grimy, desperate lowlifes: Map the Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi) is a wormy, high-strung gofer who, as his name unambiguously suggests, has a map every degenerate celebrity left in Hollywood. His character is a hybrid of those street dudes who hand out fliers for strip clubs and the guy in prison who can get you a pack of smokes and a rock hammer.
Along this L.A. odyssey, we also meet Talisma (Valeria Golino), a savvy young woman who seems a smidge too helpful for a mumbly guy named Snake. Pipeline (Peter Fonda) is a fried, middle-aged surfer-dude who’s handy to guide Snake to the right waves at just right time, brah. (Of all Fonda’s many roles, this one is probably the most blatant riff of his iconic turn in Easy Rider.) Finally, Snake enlists the help of Hershe (Pam Grier), an old associate from his adventures in Cleveland. Grier’s character is a trans woman, a fact the filmmakers try to mine for wrongheaded laughs. More than any other dated aspect for Escape from L.A., this one does. not. age. well.
Ill-placed comedy aside, Plissken fans probably know exactly what to expect from Escape from L.A.: Russell mumble-growls a few one-liners so quietly it makes Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name sound like a Chatty Kathy doll. All the characters want to kill Snake, or at least manipulate him but our hero ends up either kicking ass or taking names. (Actually, I’m not 100% sure Snake knows how to write. Somebody can fact-check me on that one.) Anyway, Snake blows some shit up and mows down a few hundred bad guys. All while Carpenter’s retro synth-score blares from the speakers.
Escape from L.A. is probably best described as a junk food epic. Sure, Carpenter peppers in some political satire and social commentary, but nothing that sticks in a creatively substantial way. No, this is a strange, visceral movie, best experienced from one pungent whiff to the next. Unfortunately, what smelled fresh about Escape from New York has grown musty and tepid here.
101 min. R. Starz.