From IMDb’s trivia page on Escape from L.A.: Escape from LA [sic] was caught in development hell for over ten years. A script for the film was first commissioned in 1985 but John Carpenter thought it “too light, too campy.”
Too campy? Why? Were The Riddler and Two-Face in the original draft? I find it hard to believe that Carpenter rejected a script for this film because it was campy. This movie lives on camp. It’s not light, though. I’ll give Carpenter that. Escape from L.A. is a violent flick. A bit cartoonish, maybe, but that many bullets can’t be fired in a movie and still be considered light.
Escape from L.A. is a sequel to John Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic Escape from New York. The old team reunites for this new effort. Producer Debra Hill, director John Carpenter, and star Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, Carpenter’s most infamous film anti-hero. Sure, there’s no Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, or Isaac Hayes, but their characters all got wasted in the first film. There’s also no Lee Van Cleef or Donald Pleasence, but those two were dead in real life by the time the cameras rolled. Other than that, it’s the same crew.
This time the scene shifts from New York City to, of course, Los Angeles. It’s the near future, and a radical right-wing preacher (Cliff Robertson) has predicted that a powerful earthquake would destroy Los Angeles in the year 2000. Yea, verily, it came to pass. A big chunk of SoCal broke off from the continent, separated from the mainland by the newly formed San Fernando Sea. The preacher is elected president for life, and declares that all moral criminals be sent into exile on the island of Los Angeles. So, like the first film, a major United States city is now a maximum security prison. A prison with no guards inside, no order, and no escape.
Fast forward to the year 2013. Snake Plissken, who disappeared after the events in New York, has been captured and convicted of twenty-seven moral offenses, and has been sentenced to exile in Los Angeles. Once again, his timing is perfect. A few hours before, the president’s daughter hijacked Air Force Three and bailed out over L.A., carrying a black box the president very much wants back. Inside is a device that controls a satellite network that can disable all electronics on the earth with an EMP pulse. Out of options, Commander Malloy of the United States Police Force (Stacy Keach) offers snake a familiar deal. Infiltrate L.A., return with the box, and walk away a free man.
By this point, a viewer will have noticed that Escape from L.A. is not so much a sequel as it is a remake. I would go farther, though, and suggest it is also a cheap parody. Escape from New York was a silly movie, but only in idea, not execution. Escape from L.A. is a mess. That campiness I mentioned above is just death for this flick. It’s a bad sign when about twenty minutes into the film, Plissken is driving a laughably rendered CGI submarine past the Universal Studios shark, and it tries to bite his sub. Later on, Plissken is seen jumping a motorcycle into the back of a pickup truck (in laughably rendered CGI). Still later, a viewer is treated to Snake riding a tsunami on a surfboard down Wiltshire Blvd., then deftly leaping onto the back of a big fin Caddy (in laughably rendered CGI). Then he invades an enemy compound using a hang glider and mows down about two-dozen bad guys with a machine gun (while hanging from a harness, but it still looks laughable).
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Most of the performances in Escape from L.A. contribute to the general ridiculousness of the movie. Kurt Russell plays Snake like he’s auditioning for an off-off-off-Broadway stage production of Dirty Harry the Musical. Bruce Campbell as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills might have thought he really was doing a Joel Schumacher Batman film. Peter Fonda must have been thinking about putting an addition on his house. Pam Grier was, well, Pam Grier. And Steve Buscemi as Map to the Stars Eddie could have been replaced by Rob Schneider and no one would have noticed.
The best performance in the movie was given by Georges Corraface as bad guy Cuervo Jones, and it was because he had the decency not to overact.
Escape from L.A. is a terrible film. The edgy filmmaker that first introduced Snake Plissken to audiences in 1981 was long gone by the time this dog was released in 1996. Looking at Carpenter’s career is a study in tragedy. Sometime between Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness, the man hit a wall. Escape from L.A. is the nadir of the shambles that is the second half of Carpenter’s career as a director. Alien: Resurrection is the winner in this duel.