From the Archives: Escape from LA eschews realism for maximizing mania

From the Archives: Escape from LA eschews realism for maximizing mania

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

This summer, we are counting down our 25 favorite movies that didn’t connect with audiences on their initial release! View the whole series here.

12. Escape from LA (dir. John Carpenter, 1996)

  • Budget: $50 million

  • U.S. box office: $25.5 million

Before I start waxing philosophical on the merits/demerits of Escape from L.A., let me make one thing absolutely clear: Kurt Russell is my all-time favorite actor. He’s not necessarily the best (although he is among them), but he’s undoubtedly my favorite. Any time he appears on screen, my mood lifts and I am granted a strong sense of hope. I am inspired to improve my attitude and to work as hard as I possibly can in life. Why?


Easy. Because Kurt Russell is always having a great time. In this way, he is in the same league as Dolly Parton or Sylvester Stallone. No matter what the movie, no matter how good (or bad) the script, no matter who they’re working with, no matter the size of their role, you know for a fact that they will bring their best to the table and happily so. I want a bracelet that says WWKRD, so that whenever the chips are down I can be reminded to do whatever Kurt Russell would do — namely, he’d handle his shit, put on a smile, and get to work.

I used to say I wanted a WWSSD bracelet (what would Sylvester Stallone do?), until I realized that what he would do is inject human growth hormone into his buttocks. I’m good on that.


So with this love for Russell firmly established, it pains me to say that his only screenwriting credit in half a century of show business is for a movie that was a legendary flop: Escape from L.A. And it’s a shame because the movie is a total blast. It’s one of the nuttiest movies ever made, and it’s made with a heaping helping of love. Personally, I don’t know how anyone could dislike this movie (heresy alert: I think it’s superior to the original film), but I can see plainly why it wasn’t a box office success. Made a full fifteen years after Escape from New York, long after the typical sequel turnaround window closes, there wasn’t an audience clamoring for more adventures with Snake Plissken. Nobody needed to know what happened next in this oddball version of the future. Well, nobody except Kurt Russell.

Russell was so enamored with playing Snake that he begged Carpenter to make a sequel. While there was indeed a script optioned as early as 1985, Carpenter nixed it on account of being “too soft.” With time, any forward motion on another Snake Plissken adventure faded, but the powerful combination of desire and circumstance rekindled the project. After the 1994 Los Angeles earthquakes brought apocalyptic imagery to the City of Angels, Russell and Carpenter thought that maybe this was the path to a sequel – put it in a new city, and one not typically associated with urban grime the way New York had been. Together with ABSOLUTE LEGEND Debra Hill, the trio cranked out a totally bonkers script.


Escape from L.A. is a beat by beat rehash of the plot of its predecessor, but with added leather. In this case, it’s a good thing. Nobody on the planet does “I can’t believe I have to do this shit again” better than Russell, and that’s his main driving force as Snake Plissken. With this script being much heavier on self-parody, Snake’s anarchic detachment gets plenty of room to breathe. One could poke fun at either film for giving us gun-toting villains who couldn’t hit a wall at two paces, but one also gets the sense that Snake could melt any bullets headed his way with a simple scowl. Russell himself may be excited to front another suicidal rescue mission, but Snake ain’t having it.

Russell makes having no fun so much fun.

At the time of release, one of the biggest criticisms of the film was that its effects were cheap. It’s true, they are quite low quality. Yet they’ve aged considerably well. Now that so many action movies are shot in a green cube somewhere near Atlanta, the fact that much of Escape from L.A. is shot on sets and sound stages paves over the fact that a few moments of CGI look as if they were made on a budget (note: they were). Perhaps wonky CGI is also much easier to forgive when it’s almost a quarter century old. While it might have looked subpar at the time, now it looks positively par. It’s worth remembering that in the original film, the digitized maps of New York were created by filming miniatures outlined with green glow tape (an effect that was built by James Cameron!). The fact that the effects in both films are so dated is specifically why they hold up so well. And really, if you’re gonna harsh on Kurt Russell and Peter Fonda surfing a sewage wave together, I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW YOU.

Other elements haven’t aged as well, but it’s less because of the film itself and more because of changing times. The most glaring of these issues is in the character of Hershe Las Palmas, played with considerable verve by Pam Grier. You see, Hershe hasn’t always been Hershe. In Escape from New York, many references are made to a job in Cleveland that went wrong for Snake back in the day. It’s revealed that Hershe was part of this failed job, and that Hershe has since undergone gender reassignment. While here in 2020 it would make sense to hire a trans performer, in 1997 we instead got Pam Grier with a deep modulation applied to her voice in post-production. In conjunction with a short scene involving a group of citizens who have ruined their faces with plastic surgery (led by Bruce Campbell under heavy prosthetics), and thus require regular grafts to keep from rotting, it doesn’t sit well. There’s an aura of “why can’t the vacuous, image-conscious, cluelessly privileged people of Los Angeles leave well enough alone?” It’s played for humor, and it could be argued that it’s done at the expense of the wrong party. The defense of course being that Snake Plissken, ever the anarchist, really doesn’t care what people do with their bodies as long as he can have his smokes and collect some cash, but his scowl unavoidably takes a slightly unsavory flavor in the present day.


Then again, this sort of haphazard accidental problematica is precisely why I love Escape from L.A. so damn much. It’s really not digging at anything deep or nuanced, but rather just trying to hit us with as much colorful madness as it can in 100 minutes, cultural shifts in propriety be damned. There’s no energy expended by way of creating realism, which is helpful in giving this the edge over the first film. From the personal submarine to the basketball death games, all the way to the hang gliders ripped straight from the hangars of Endor, there’s a kitchen sink mentality that never stops being fun, even if just in the way of seeing how much mania they can cram into the proceedings.

Note: John Carpenter apparently LOVES basketball, so murderbasketball seems to exist at the nexus of his interests. I am happy that this was able to occur.

The goal of most sequels is to escalate the things audiences loved about the original film. Unfortunately, most sequels will fail at delivering bigger and better, instead just delivering moreEscape from L.A. cuts out the middleman and forsakes bigger and better.  The goal here is to deliver more, and Carpenter/Russell/Hill have effectively delivered the most that they can.

No discussion of the Escape movies can be complete without speaking of the lawsuit John Carpenter won against the filmmakers behind Lockout, a low budget actioner in which a wrongfully accused convict is sent to rescue the president’s daughter from a space prison. The lawsuit (filed in France, where the standards of evidence may be different) alleged that Lockout was plagiarizing the Escape films. While Lockout does indeed feature a protagonist rescuing a government official from a dangerous location at the behest of an antagonistic agency, the similarities end there. By this utterly ridiculous standard, Carpenter owes some money to about 100 different films that predated his Escape series.

And since (huuuuge heresy alert) I think Lockout is (slightly) better than either Escape flick, I’m pretty miffed that this lawsuit helped to prevent a sequel. I’d have loved to see Guy Pearce’s Marion Snow given another opportunity to talk smack and punch baddies. Oh well.

That said, Snake never got another sequel either, although he came close. Remember Ghosts of Mars? Well that silly distraction began its life as Escape from Mars.

If only Escape from L.A. weren’t such a flop.

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