Urban Western

Escape From L.A.

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           THE GLUT OF impending-apocalypse films seems no coincidence in this last election year of the millennium. In real life, the sense that things couldn't possibly be more hopeless is disproven by one new catastrophe after another, while it's clear even to nightly news anchors that whomever wins the latest presidential puppet show will be inheriting more than he can handle. So in order to help us deal with these fears, our movies conjure up and then whisk away various worst-case scenarios: killer twisters, alien invasions, terrorist attacks, a new Klan. The disaster of Escape From L.A. is that the year 2016 will bring a "new, moral America" in which cigarettes and red meat are outlawed by a police-state president serving a lifelong term. What will we do? Unlike ID4, which soothes fin de siècle angst by restoring familiar forms of order, Escape From L.A. caters to anarchic fantasies. In the end, our eye-patched anti-hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) enjoys a good smoke as the world burns.

           The first Snake vehicle, Escape From New York (1981), was a brooding, impressively low-budget epic made by John Carpenter and the minuscule Avco Embassy Pictures for $5 million; conversely, Carpenter's Escape From L.A. is a Paramount endeavor that, at 10 times the budget, evinces the bloat of comic-book action movies in the last decade. So it's surprising that the sequel is the better film, combining dystopia and hyperbole with greater wit and slightly more enlightened politics.

           Set in a nightmarish 1997, the original arose from Carpenter's acknowledged desire to erect tough new heroes in the wake of Jimmy Carter and the hostage crisis in Iran; indeed, with its final scene of a reinvigorated president machine-gunning a black drug dealer to death, New York is a quintessential text for the Reagan era. L.A. is more complicated--or perhaps more equivocal. On the one hand, the film's crime-infested, multiculti L.A. represents conservative fears of the inner-city writ large; on the other, Carpenter unambiguously indicts bureaucracy, technology, and big business. Hilariously, the fall guy here is a bankrupted Disney, said to have finally succumbed to "that thing in Paris."

           Fat chance--but this is science fiction. We're also asked to believe that L.A., separated by an earthquake from the rest of the nation, has become a mass deportation site for those deemed undesirable by the right wing PC fascists in power. Snake, a "moral criminal" and freelance vigilante, is offered full pardon by the president (Cliff Robertson) if he can steal back a "doomsday device" that's fallen into the hands of Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), a Che Guevara-like Peruvian revolutionary who runs the L.A. gang called Mescalito Justice. Other complications: To speed Snake along, the government has implanted him with a genetically engineered virus that'll shut down his nervous system in eight hours; the U.S. is being threatened by attack from Cuba and other Third World foes (like I said, science fiction); and the president's daughter, a Valley Girl Patty Hearst named Utopia (A.J. Langer), has taken up with Cuervo. Shockingly, the commander-in-chief orders Snake to kill Utopia; as in The Searchers, the white girl's association with another tribe has tainted her beyond repair.

           The film's action, with the agile Snake commandeering an archaic hang-glider and surfing a tsunami wave down Wilshire Boulevard, is deliberately ridiculous. But Carpenter seems less in control of his political perspective; he never acknowledges the fact that L.A.'s politicians and police are all white, while the gang leaders and other assorted extras have apparently been selected for their "authentic" color. The best one can say for Carpenter's worldview is that both cops and crooks are equally bad in relation to the undiscriminating Snake--cobra tattoo splayed on his gut, single blue eye staring intently, wardrobe of rubber and leather befitting that other Lizard King, Jim Morrison.

           Mostly though, Russell indulges his director's genre obsessions by doing his best Clint Eastwood imitation; Snake hisses the bare-bones tough-guy dialogue as menacingly as Eastwood's Man With No Name. The other actors are likewise chosen to evoke various insular anachronisms: Map to the Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi), an old-time Hollywood tour guide, drives a '50s T-bird, even as Buscemi's presence signifies contemporary indie-film cool; Peter Fonda's surfer-dude, Pipeline, recalls the '60s; and as a transsexual gang kingpin (!) named Hershe Las Palmas, Pam Grier revives the '70s. All of this is entertaining in a pomo metatextual way, but it doesn't always serve the wannabe Western story; the characters don't so much interact as exchange Methods. But the brilliant casting of Cliff Robertson as the president has more to do with Ronald Reagan than any movie per se--Carpenter's direst prediction being that the leader of our cinematic futureworld will be another has-been actor.

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