Thursday, August 6, 2009
Escape from Escape From New York with Escape From L.A.
Escape from L.A. was on television the other night, and it is an odd movie. It isn't quite a “so bad it's good movie,” since its cheesy elements are intentionally jarring because it is meant as a sequel / counterpart to Escape From New York, the clearly superior film. L.A. is shot as if Kurt Russell and John Carpenter threw up their hands and said, “Okay, there is no way we can top that first movie, so let's just try something completely different.”
If you haven't seen New York yet, you really need to. The city is a gritty, effed-up dystopia, and it has been converted into a prison colony in 1997. (Side note: Movies in the 1970s and 1980s kind of over-estimated how quickly we would devolve into Lords of the Flies-style anarchy, whether they be Escape From New York or The Terminator.) A rebel group manages to hijack Air Force One after World War III, and they crash the plane with the president on it into New York City.
Enter “Snake” Plissken, played by Kurt Russell, who is one of the baddest “good” mofos in the history of film, up there with The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) and The Bride (Uma Thurman from Kill Bill). A former special forces officer, he got caught after a string of crimes, after one of his partners abandoned him.
In New York, Snake gets handpicked to infiltrate the city and rescue the president. While he kicks ass throughout, the movie is unique in that he fails a lot too; Snake is most definitely an antihero. The United States of the movie isn't a nice place, and the president is even sleazier than usual – New York was originally envisioned as a critique of Nixon.
I'm not really doing it justice with my explanation – While it's not quite as good as, say, Dr. Strangelove or Chinatown, it is a great period piece. Whenever I see New York on television, I think, “This is how bleak the outlook was in the 1980s.” From my readings of the era, it just seems like there was a grim, militaristic feeling hanging in the air, and it didn't start to recede until the end of the Soviet Union.
As a result, Escape from L.A. had impossible shoes to fill. There is no way it could match the impact of the first one, especially since it came a decade later, in the mid-1990s, after a slew of other, “The world sucks now!” sort of destruction movies.
Instead, L.A. goes in the other direction – total camp. Also odd is that nobody seemingly informed the studio what they were getting, as it still has a blockbuster action film's budget and sheen, which only helps its quirkiness. This makes the setting perfect, as major scenes take place in sports arenas and at the ruins Disneyland. As one female characters croaks to Snake about how hard it is to trust anyone, how horrible L.A. is now, while she's in his embrace... she gets shot in the forehead.
It sounds bad, and it is ridiculous, like the rest of the movie. It even re-uses practically the same plot from New York, intentionally, given the tone. The president's daughter, a subtly hot, slightly thick blonde named Utopia [right], is seduced by the charismatic leader of a rebel faction in Los Angeles and defects with advanced weaponry to the city, which is now another prison colony like New York after an earthquake severed it from the contiguous 48. (Random note: The actress who played Utopia, A.J. Langer, a.k.a. Rayanne from My So-Called Life, has a Geocities fan page that hasn't been updated since 1998. I miss those days of the Internet.)
Even better ridiculous plot premise: Despite the ending of New York, Snake is called back into service again by the United States to retrieve the military secrets. This seems to me to be a bad idea, but hey, what the heck do I know? The United States is now run by a crazy religious politician who was elected and then appointed as lifelong president because he got lucky and predicted the earthquake in a moment of zealotry.
The cast helps. New York's inspired bit of casting was having Issac Hayes play the Duke of New York, the gangster in control of the area. He actually has less screen time than I realized, but because it is Issac Hayes in the role, he doesn't need much to establish his character.
The smart casting applies to L.A. as well, with the standout, creepy character actor Steve Buscemi being cast as Map to the Stars Eddie. Before an earthquake severed Los Angeles from the mainland, Eddie knew all the hot spots in town, and well, it still applies after the big one. Buscemi is kind of funny, even in a really F'ing psycho role like in Fargo, so it's nice to see him getting intentionally funny lines in L.A.
There are plenty of weird, implausible and campy scenes in L.A., because it is such a weird, implausible and campy movie, but my favorite involves basketball. At one point, Snake is caught and forced to play for his life – He has to score 10 points, going from basket-to-basket, with 10 second shot clocks. If he misses, he dies. Of course, he lives, getting the 10th point on an obviously-fake, digital effects fling with one hand from 97 feet away. It is so purposely bad that it is great.
Because L.A. is just so weird, it wasn't really marketed properly. I was about 11 or 12 when it came out, and I remember it being advertised as a “take no prisoners” sort of hero movie, a la Rambo. I can't imagine a campaign that would make L.A. successful, and I'm actually surprised it ever got made – It is just a clever, genre-defying film. While it certainly isn't everyone's cup of tea, it is so odd it deserves being seen. I applaud Russell and company for going through with it, because it was certainly riskier and more ambitious to go in this direction, as opposed to just saying, “Hey, let's do Escape 2 and have 50 million shoot-outs!”