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Why Escape from LA Is Awesome

December 6, 2023 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
Escape From LA Kurt Russell 1 Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Author’s Note: This particular article is a sort reworking of something that originally appeared in issue #371 of The Gratuitous B-Movie Column. Unfortunately, that original piece has been lost to the ravages of the internets and whatnot. But, as a full on fan of writer/director/composer John Carpenter, including his “later” work, I thought it was important to celebrate his unjustly maligned Escape from New York sequel Escape from L.A.. And so that’s what this is, a celebration of Escape from L.A.. Enjoy.

Why Escape From L.A. is awesome!

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Intro: The first time I became aware of Escape from L.A. was in the lobby of my local movie theatre in the late winter/early spring of 1996. There, in the “coming soon” movie poster section was that badass poster of Russell as Snake, sitting on a motorcycle, with the title “Snake Is Back.” I had no idea that Russell was doing another Snake Plissken movie. And since this was before I had access to the internets in any way, shape, or form, I hadn’t read anything about Russell and director John Carpenter doing another Escape movie (I don’t remember reading anything in any genre movie magazine at the time, either). So, as soon as I stopped flipping out that Snake Plissken was coming back, I went into research overload. When was it coming out? Who else was in it? What was the movie about? What the heck was Snake Plissken going to be doing in this second cinematic adventure sixteen years later?

Well, unfortunately, even in full on nerd research mode I still couldn’t find out much about the movie. Again, I didn’t have access to the internets at the time and the genre movie magazines I was buying didn’t have much at all about the movie (I want to say I saw a little bit about the movie in the now long gone Cinescape magazine and something in the old Sci-Fi Channel magazine but I could be wrong about that. I know that Fangoria did something, but it was one of those one page story deals). I was able to find out that Escape from L.A. (I now had a full title for the movie, too) was coming out later that summer, in August. So I marked that down and waited for the movie trailer or the “real” movie poster or the TV interviews that would, no doubt, start showing up. Eventually, a half hour “making of” appeared on HBO and I finally got a look at what the heck the movie was about. It was going to be bigger than Escape From New York, it was going to be more action packed, and it was going to be cool as all hooha (Carpenter said during the show that L.A. was the “biggest kick-ass movie I’ve ever done,” and that was a big statement coming from the guy that did Big Trouble in Little China).

So I made a serious effort to see Escape from L.A. on opening weekend. I saw it on that Saturday (it wasn’t a good idea to see a movie on opening day where I was at the time as you’d never get near the theatre). And from the second it started I was in awe of it. The action, the music, the attitude, it was all just so awesome and perfect. It was the best movie that I saw that summer, with Ahnold Schwarzenegger’s Eraser second and The Rock third (Kingpin and Cemetery Man were tied for fourth). Snake Plissken really was back. I wanted to see it again. I didn’t get that chance in a movie theatre, but when it hit home video I rented it as soon as it came out. That first weekend I watched EFLA four times.

And when it hit HBO? I recorded it three times and still watched it just about every single time I was aware of it being on, even in the wee hours of the morning. Obsessed much? Absolutely. But this was Escape from L.A., man. Snake Plissken was goddamn back. How could I not watch?

So why is Escape from L.A. awesome?

Reasons

It’s another movie featuring Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken: At that time Kurt Russel was four things to me. He was Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China, Dean Profit from Overboard, Gabriel Cash from Tango & Cash, and the eyepatch wearing badass that rescued the President of the United States from Isaac Hayes in Escape From New York. It baffled me at the time that, outside of Overboard, the world didn’t have multiple Burton, Cash, and Plissken adventures. For whatever reason, while those movies were all popular and on TV all of the time there didn’t seem to be much interest from anyone with any influence to make sequels. So, when I became aware of EFLA it was a big freaking deal. We were finally going to get a Kurt Russell character sequel.

Now, when we first see Plissken in EFLA he really doesn’t look any different from the last time we saw him. Yes, he does look a little older, but he’s still wearing the same clothing, he has the same kind of hair, and he still sounds the same. He doesn’t quite move as quick as the younger Plissken did in EFNY but, overall, Snake Plissken is still basically the same guy in 1996/2013 that he was in 1981/1997.

And then we see Plissken in action. EFLA is faster with more gunplay, so Plissken has to adapt. And, man, does he adapt. As soon as he sees his target he jumps into the fight and he never lets up. That’s what Snake Plissken does. He adapts, he fights, he kicks ass, and he somehow figures out how to come out on top despite the odds against him.

Snake was back, and Russell looked like he was having the time of his life wearing the eyepatch again (not to mention the badass trench coat).

It’s a badass action flick: One of the biggest complaints about Escape From L.A. is that it’s “too similar” to Escape From New York in terms of its plot and, to a certain extent, story beats. While that is essentially true I think people really need to re-examine both movies and recognize what they’re really all about. EFNY is more of a suspense thriller movie chock full of moody darkness. It’s almost like a horror movie. Escape From L.A., though, is an action movie through and through. From the second it starts, with its rocked up version of the Escape From New York theme and its explanation of the earthquake that separates Los Angeles from America you can tell that EFLA is going to be a different experience. And it is. It’s an action flick.

The submarine sequence, a full on CGI sequence, is chock full of speed and destruction. When Snake lands in L.A., starts walking around, and then tries to assassinate villain Cuervo Jones, holy shit, it’s amazing. The bit where Snake steals the motorcycle and jumps it into the back of a moving pick-up truck, how can you not jump and cheer at that moment? It’s one of the greatest motorcycle jump sequences ever committed to film, and a good chunk of it is CGI. That makes it even more amazing.

And as you look at the rest of the movie, there are fist fights, explosions, chases, a hang glider attack (a goddamn hang glider attack!), and more explosions. EFNY really didn’t have any of that stuff, at least not in the same way/tempo as EFLA.

So EFLA really is different from EFNY. Again, go ahead and watch both movies again. Pay close attention to what you actually see. They’re similar, yes, but they are not the same movie.

It’s a sly parody of Escape from New York: While EFLA is a full on, out and proud action movie it’s also a sly parody of Escape from New York. Think about how, when Snake is walking into L.A. and you can hear the song on the soundtrack with the lyrics “Seems like we’ve been here before, it seems so familiar.” Because, yes, it does seem like we’ve been here before. There is something very familiar about what’s going on. The movie is telling you, the audience, that it knows that it’s “ripping off” what happened before (isn’t that what sequels are anyway? A rip off of whatever the original is/was?). The movie’s sense of humor also mimics the EFNY bit where everyone thought Snake Plissken was dead. Now in EFLA just about everyone is surprised at how tall Snake Plissken is in real life (“I thought you would be… taller.”). It’s all a big goof. The movie is having fun and it wants you, the audience, to have fun. It sure seems like far few people “got” that part of the movie.

It has a political axe to grind: Escape from L.A. is one of the most openly political movies of the last thirty years. It takes major shots at politics, culture, and religion and it doesn’t shy away from doing any of it. The United States in the movie is a fascist Christian dictatorship that stifles people under its endless rules and need for “morality.” It isn’t a nice place. But then the L.A. prison, where you can do pretty much whatever you want, is a dystopian hellhole ruled by psychopaths and criminals. It isn’t a nice place, either. So, in the end, no matter what, we’re all screwed because neither side is, for the lack of a better word, good.

Now, I do think that Carpenter is sympathetic to the people trapped in the L.A. prison that aren’t trying to kill anyone or take over the United States and rule the world and all that. They’re all like Plissken, a guy who just wants to live his life. You don’t bother him, he won’t bother you. But then they’re all stuck in a world where they either have jackbooted assholes rounding them up because they’re “trash” and “don’t follow the rules,” or they’re being attacked by gun toting dope fiends and alpha male gang leaders in the “free” place. What kind of freedom is there when, no matter what, you’re surrounded by people who just want to mess with you?

EFLA is now twenty seven years old and yet, much like Carpenter’s other full on political movie, They Live, it’s still just as important and relevant as it was when it came out. Think about it. How many people are there in this country and on this planet who do nothing but try to find ways to ruin other people’s lives? Politics, culture, religion; in the end it’s all the same bullshit.

And what movie since EFLA has had the balls to do the following conversation:

Commander Malloy: “The United States is a no smoking nation. No smoking, no drinking, no drugs, no women, unless, of course, you’re married. No guns, no foul language, no red meat.”

Snake Plissken: “Land of the free.”

Stacy Keach and Cliff Robertson are brilliant in it: Keach is Commander Malloy, the head of the United States Police Force in Los Angeles, and Robertson is the ultra-right wing Christian psycho President of the United States. Robertson’s President is a bit of a cartoon because he’s so over the top and such a madman, but then the President, in this world, is supposed to be an over-the-top madman. What other kind of person would be President-for-life and pray all of the time while saying “goddamn” more often than not?

Keach’s Malloy is a little more subtle. He’s a soldier through and through and seems to believe in the world ruled by Robertson’s President, but at the same time he’s a little more realistic and world-weary. His comment about the 20th century being “the good old days,” you get the impression that he really believes that and if he had a chance to go back to that time he probably would (and what’s the deal with Malloy’s little cactus plants that we see him spraying? That seems awfully subversive in this new, hardcore right wing world). And when Plissken enters L.A. and Malloy loses track of him Malloy doesn’t panic and deem the infiltration mission a failure. He tells the President to be patient, to wait, because he knows that Plissken has a knack for getting out of tough spots.

And think about the moment where Malloy actually stands up to the President and tells him no, to think about what he’s doing. Would a complete believer do that? I don’t think so.

Keach and Robertson are just so great in this movie. They deserved endless praise back in 1996 when the movie premiered, and they both deserve endless praise today. Their performances still rock.

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Cuervo Jones is a great villain: As played by George Corraface, Cuervo Jones is a charismatic psycho that just oozes the kind of cool that appeals to people looking for “cool” stuff to believe in. He hates fascists, he wants to take on the U.S. and its imperialism, and he wants people to live in “freedom.” Of course, he’s also an unrepentant killer and a gang leader who really just wants to rule the world in his own image. He also looks like Che Guevara, which helps in the charisma department (and it’s a great jab at the left).

While I love Isaac Hayes in EFNY as the Duke of New York, he isn’t as interesting as Cuervo Jones. The Duke is scary because he rules with an iron fist. Cuervo rules like a strongman, but he doesn’t seem to instill the outright fear that the Duke does. It’s almost like he doesn’t care if anyone knows that he’s the man, although he will make you know that he is the man when the time is right. And Cuervo’s bullshit is funnier. Think about the scene where he shuts down Lynchburg, Virginia, the new U.S. capital. Those people “without a country” standing behind him are not there because Cuervo cares about them. They’re props and nothing more. The Duke probably wouldn’t do that.

I’m surprised that Corraface didn’t get more action movie villain work after EFLA. Or hero work for that matter. I bet he would have a great body of work at the moment.

Bruce Campbell is in it: He’s only in the movie for one scene as the plastic surgery cult leader and wacko the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, but it’s a great scene and shows you that, even with a small role, Bruce Campbell can kick ass no matter what. Even under heavy make-up created by the great Rick Baker, you can tell that Campbell is having the time of his life mugging for the camera. And his “one blue eye” line is still T-shirt ready to this day.

Now, would it have been awesome if the Surgeon General showed up again later in the movie? Absolutely. But the stuff that we have now is still amazing stuff. I’d like to know how we don’t have a mass market action figure of the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills. It’s just mind boggling to me that we don’t have that (or more Escape from L.A action figures, outside of the Snake Plissken dolls that are out there).

The surfing tsunami scene: Yes, I know that this scene is ridiculous, but I fail to see why the scene is bad because of that. I mean, come on, it’s Snake Plissken and Peter Fonda surfing in the middle of Los Angeles. How can that not be one of the greatest things ever committed to film? It is, and if you don’t like it you really need to take the stick out of your ass and start to enjoy life and cinema more.

Pam Grier: Pam Grier plays Hershe Las Palmas, a transsexual criminal that seems to have a similar reputation to Cuervo Jones. She has a gang (Saigon Shadows), she has believers, and she’s a bit of a psycho (we don’t get to see that part of her personality but people keep talking about it so it must be true). But before she was Hershe, she was Carjack Malone, an old buddy of Plissken’s (they were fellow criminals back in the day). The look on Plissken’s face when he hears Hershe’s deep voice is priceless.

Hershe is the kind of character that wouldn’t happen today because someone would be offended by her, either humorless trans activists or religious fanatics who hate trans people. Grier gives her the kind of screen presence that a lesser actress just couldn’t achieve even if she gave it her all. Grier totally goes for it and makes you remember her. The lower voice helps, too, although I believe that’s audio trickery more than Grier. But she sells that, too, and makes it work.

It’s too bad what happened to her at the end of the movie. Although, who knows, maybe we didn’t see her fall out of the helicopter while on fire? Maybe she landed somewhere, still alive and fabulous, and ready to rule Los Angeles Island. I mean, that could have happened, right? It happened in my dreams, but those don’t count, at least not at the moment.

The soundtrack: Carpenter collaborated with the now late but always great composer Shirley Walker for the second time on Escape From L.A. (they worked together on Memoirs of an Invisible Man before EFLA) and they created a film score that will stand the test of time. It’s a good mix of the simple yet brilliant work that Carpenter has always been known for (a mix of synthesizers and guitar work) and a full orchestral section put together by Walker. The orchestral stuff makes the movie seem and feel bigger but is driving, just like the stuff Carpenter creates. Carpenter’s stuff, like the opening rock theme and the “Snakes Uniform” theme are just so good and so badass that you can’t stop listening to it.

Here, check out “Snake’s Uniform” below and revel in its awesomeness.

I’m also a big fan of the sequence where Snake and Cuervo fight and then crawl to grab the Sword of Damocles remote control and there’s that mix of Walker and Carpenter themes. Watch the movie, wait for that scene, and be prepared to have your ass kicked by it.

And that opening theme. This still rocks and rocks hard.

”Shot clock”: This is another “ridiculous” scene that people hate for some reason. I just don’t see how you can hate it. Cuervo Jones forces Snake Plissken to make ten points on a full basketball court, without missing a shot, something no one has ever done until Snake gets on the court and makes five shots in a row, including a full court shot that still makes me stand up and cheer when I watch the movie. The slow motion, the final swish sound as the ball goes through the net, it’s all so great.

Go ahead, laugh if you want, but the scene kicks ass.

”Bangkok rules”: This is probably the most badass scene in the entire movie. It’s so simple yet so brilliant. Snake Plissken up against multiple gun-toting Cuervo Jones gang members. He gets them to participate in an Old West gun duel. And Snake outsmarts them in the end.

“Draw!” makes me laugh every single time I see it.

The ending is so damn good and messed up: How often do you see a movie’s hero destroy civilization? It happens very rarely, if ever. Escape from L.A. is the one that always pops up in my mind when I think about movies that end with the world in serious disarray. Snake Plissken, still pissed off about being messed with at the beginning of the movie, follows through on his promise to get back at his captors. Shutting down the Earth with the Sword of Damocles weaponized satellite system probably wasn’t Snake’s plan at first, but it sort of just happened that way because, well, it was what was available at the time.

Now, isn’t shutting down the entire Earth a major dick move? Sure. But then what do you expect when you willingly mess with a guy like Snake Plissken? After shutting everything off and down Plissken will finally get the chance to do what he wants, just disappear. Who the heck is going to come after him?

Of course, I’ve always suspected that there’s a chance that the Sword of Damocles “666” code didn’t really shut everything off around the world. Think about what Hershe tells Plissken about the Plutoxin-7 virus, the virus that Plissken is injected with that’s supposed to kill him. What is Plutoxin-7? A hard hitting case of the flu that stops working after ten hours. It doesn’t kill you. “Rumor control government propaganda, just one more lie!” Maybe the SoD just shuts everything off for a little bit. Maybe the EMP pulse really isn’t an EMP pulse, but some other kind of pulse weapon. That’s possible, isn’t it?

The ending also has one of the greatest speeches in action movie history, given by Snake Plissken right before he shuts down the world:

“Hold it. Shut down the Third World, they lose, you win. Shut down America, you lose, they win. The more things change the more they stay the same.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Disappear.”

That about sums up the movie, doesn’t it?

Great stuff all around.

The movie serves as a warning: Like all political movies, Escape from L.A. serves as a warning to the world that if you allow extremists to obtain power they will use that power for truly horrendous things. It was obvious to me way back in 1996 that that was what Carpenter, Debra Hill, and to a certain extent Kurt Russell, the movie’s credited screenwriters, were advocating with their movie. And now, with the way large swaths of the globe are falling under the sway of hardcore right wing strongmen (and those who desperately want to be hardcore right wing strongmen), Escape from L.A. is more prescient now than ever. The movie is warning us what could very well happen if we fall for the hardcore fascist garbage that’s out there (think about the following bit of narration when you hear presidential candidates talking about “mass deportation” and “wall building”:

“After the devastation, the Constitution is amended, and the newly elected President accepts a lifetime term of office. The country’s capital is relocated from Washington D.C. to the President’s hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. Los Angeles Island ids declared no longer part of the United States and becomes the deportation point for all people found undesirable or unfit to live in the new, moral America. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped along the shoreline, making any escape from L.A. impossible. From the southeastern hills or Orange County to the northwestern shore of Malibu, the Great Wall excludes L.A. from the mainland. The President’s first act as permanent Commander-in-Chief is Directive 17; once an American loses his or her citizenship, they are deported to this island of the damned and they never come back.”

If the United States and, hell, the world, isn’t careful, Escape from L.A. could very well become real life. Do you want to live in that world?

Conclusion

I know that I’m not supposed to like Escape From L.A.. It’s a “bad” movie, too similar to Escape from New York, etc. It didn’t set the box office on fire when it came out (although, when you look at the summer of 1996, by the time EFLA came out movie going audiences had already seen Twister, The Rock, Eraser, and Independence Day, among many other big movies that rocked the box office that summer. Audiences were likely tired by the time EFLA came out and figured they had already “seen everything”). So it must be bad.

It isn’t. It’s awesome. Escape from L.A. is a modern classic through and through and in dire need of a re-examination. It really is one of Carpenter’s best efforts as a director and a movie that needs to be celebrated instead of vilified.

Escape from L.A.. See it, experience it, check it out, make it a part of your life. It really is as awesome.

“Snake! Snake! Snake! Snake!”

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Image Credit: Paramount Home Entertainment

I also just want to say that I hope, one day, we get a new version of the Escape from L.A. Blu-ray that the fine folks at Shout! Factory/Scream Factory put out but this time it has the John Carpenter/Kurt Russell commentary track that the world still needs (and it wouldn’t be bad, either, to get a full on Carpenter/Russell commentary track for the Elvis TV movie they made. That’s out on home video but it doesn’t have a commentary track).

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Check out my John Carpenter lists!

Ranking John Carpenter’s Movies: #23-#19
Ranking John Carpenter’s Movies: #18-#14
Ranking John Carpenter’s Movies: #13-#9
Ranking John Carpenter’s Movies: #8-#4
Ranking John Carpenter’s Movies: #3-#1
The Top 5 John Carpenter Movie Soundtracks
The Top 5 John Carpenter Movie Themes
The Top 5 John Carpenter Movie Villains

And check out my other two John Carpenter movie celebrations:

Why John Carpenter’s Vampires is awesome!

Why John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars is awesome!

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