The Weirdness Of ‘Escape From L.A.’ Saved It From Irrelevancy

John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A. hit screens 25 years ago this week, dropping in at the tail end of a summer season that featured Independence Day, Mission Impossible, Twister, and The Rock. The return of Snake Plissken, with Kurt Russell donning the eye patch for the first time in 15 years (or four if you count Captain Ron, and I do) should have allowed the film to fit right in amongst the other blockbusters of ’96, but instead, it got its clock cleaned on its opening weekend by Jack. Do you remember Jack? No, you do not, but it’s a family drama from Francis Ford Coppola featuring Robin Williams as a kid with a disease that makes him age super fast. Critics HATED it, but it made more than twice Escape From L.A.‘s $25 million domestic take. This is further proof that box office has little to do with quality. But that number seems light, right? I mean, Snake Plissken! But maybe not!

Carpenter and Russell are both icons, and not in the participation trophy way with which the word often gets applied. They’re honest to goodness game-changers who have done great things individually, but their team-ups are extra special, specifically Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble In Little China. Shockingly, however, the combined domestic box office for those three films is a little more than $50 million. That doesn’t quite make them failures when adjusting for today’s dollars and taking their budgets and expectations into account, but it’s notable because a studio somehow gave Carpenter about that much money to make Escape From L.A. expecting a lot more ROI than they should have based on prior returns. Silly studio, that’s approximately 8X the budget he had on Escape From New York. This was great, because Carpenter had, historically, made big things happen on smaller budgets, and so those hubris bucks gave him the chance to embrace the full breadth of his ambition, and the weirdo result, paired with the innate badassery of Russell, is why the film is still worth talking about.

Let’s get the plot description out of the way for anyone who has forgotten or who hasn’t seen the film (which you can and should rent on Amazon).

The year is 2013 and America is under the reign of a divide and conquer totalitarian President (Cliff Robertson) with rat’s nest hair and near-certain brain worms. He’s been elected for life on a platform that’s a mix of weaponized political correctness and moral cleansing, sending people to the freshly made badlands of L.A. (which has broken off from the mainland after an earthquake) if they aren’t cut out of a Rockwell painting. He’s a coward, hypocrite, and the clear villain of the film. What a mixed message for proto-red hats in the ’90s who would have surely latched onto the anti-PC slice of that pie, no wonder they turned to Limp Bizkit music to clarify their rage.

The President’s daughter (A.J. Langer) betrays her father, stealing a superweapon for Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), her L.A.-based rebel leader boyfriend. He has bad intentions, but the government isn’t keen to let him start a war. Enter Plissken. After being arrested and injected with a virus, Plisken heads to dystopian L.A. with only a short time to retrieve the weapon and get back to the mainland for an antidote. Here’s where things get wonderfully weird.

See Steve Buscemi as a fast-talking con man and goon, the guy from Revenge Of The Nerds as a knife-throwing skinhead, and Bruce Campbell as a demented plastic surgeon with a parade of freaks! Experience a burnt-out L.A., the very best fake future tech that Radio Shack had to offer, hang gliding machine gunnery at a pseudo-Magic Kingdom, and a key scene where Snake surfs a tsunami with Peter Fonda using effects that inspired the person behind them to publicly apologize for the entire sequence.

This is called “Surfboard Car Chase Scene.” He is wrong.

The sh*tty CGI of this film is a feature, not a glitch. Does Big Trouble In Little China have pristine effects? Hell no, neither does The Thing. It’s part of their charm.

The trailer doesn’t shy away from those moments, mixing the surfing and hang gliding scenes with hardcore metal, Langer in her underwear, more metal, and a bunch of random clips of Snake kicking ass and talking up his distaste for rules. The ’90s! Anyway, what Carpenter did not show in the trailer is the film’s secret weapon: a leather-clad Kurt Russell being forced to take on the ultimate basketball challenge within Cuervo Jones’ makeshift gladiatorial arena at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

“I give you the death of Snaaaaake Plissken!” shouts Cuervo to the disparate groups of baddies cheering on the bloodsport. Not quite!

Please realize that, if you go by Russell’s age at the time of the film’s release, Snake was in his mid-40s when he walked onto the court. The character was also feeling heavy effects from the virus he’d been dosed with. Russell is a former pro athlete and he was clearly in great shape, but on his best day I doubt Snake could have gone end to end with a 10-second clock, sinking every shot for 2 points (“no 3 point bullshit” — Cuervo Jones was not made for the modern game) with the threat of execution hanging over him should he miss. I don’t know who could. Remember, Cuervo warned him that no one had ever survived. But somehow, Snake rallies and finds MJ Flu Game energy.

I love Snake’s reaction after the rules are explained to him. Not angry, not scared. Just annoyed, like, “do I really have to ball out on these f*ckers without my Reebok pumps?”

As you can see in the clip, Snake is the original four-level scorer, going from layups to mid-range, to half court, and then a heave from full court that gracefully drops. I have, over the years, read a few things on this movie and I have no idea if Kurt Russell is the one who shot those shots or if some kind of trickery was deployed. “Do you believe in miracles?” Wrong movie, but yes, I want to.

The movie ends with a less bonkers but equally inspired twist that echoes the end of Escape From New York albeit with more broadly felt consequences as Snake decides that the world needs a hard reboot. It’s cynical and limiting when it comes to sequels unless Carpenter and Russell ever want to come back and take Snake fully into Man With No Name full-on western territory (oh, god, please do exactly that). But it’s also pitch-perfect, affording this mishmash of wild ideas the big damn exclamation point it deserves.

While there has been talk about additional films (including one in space) and a TV show, both men seem to be winding down their prodigious careers. Carpenter hasn’t directed a feature since 2010 (but that certainly doesn’t mean he’s retired) and there have been rumors that Russell wants his work in the Christmas Chronicles as Santa Clause (which he plays the hell out of) to be his swan song. But who knows?

A reboot is always possible. Robert Rodriguez was attached once, which is interesting for a lot of reasons, but primarily because if you squint during scenes like the “Surfboard Car Chase,” it almost looks like a shot from Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City.

More recently, The Invisible Man writer/director Leigh Whannell took the reigns, but it doesn’t sound like anything is imminent. Which is fine. I’m all for recasts, reboots, remakes, reimaginings, etc. Stories get passed from generation to generation. I await the moment when nostalgia boys crack under the weight of the news that someone else will play Indiana Jones deep into the future (you know it’s coming). But with Snake, it’s more than the challenge of filling Kurt Russell’s boots.

Can you even imagine a modern take on this anti-modern anti-hero character? Snake is 2D and it serves him (and us) when he’s dropped into 3D worlds of chaos and excess. If someone reflexively tried to probe his backstory to give him more layers or invent comical quirks or a deeper motivation beyond survival, the character would lose his specialness, wither, and die. Like an over-annunciated word, it would stab the ear and reek of overthink. Carpenter understood that perfectly, which is why he could make the world and the story bigger, more ridiculous, and with higher stakes and a bigger message at the end in Escape From L.A. All while Snake stayed largely the same. Anything else probably wouldn’t have saved it from box office failure, it just would have made it less interesting and entertaining.

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