Lotta water under the bridge since we last saw Snake Plisskin, but the smart-mouthed anti-establishment hero of John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” (1981) is as surly and resilient as ever.
The sequel even makes the director’s credit tag a part of the title: “John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A.” One suspects that bit of film-buff pretense is an inside joke, because the new movie itself is every bit as tongue-in-cheek as the original “Escape.” And the sense of life-or-death urgency is as strong.
Carpenter (and co-writers Debra Hill and Kurt Russell) may have underestimated the enduring popularity of the 1981 picture, for they recycle perhaps a bit much of that first story: It’s not the president of the United States who wants rescuing on deadline this time, but rather a presidential daughter who needs capturing; not a sensitive tape recording that’s at stake, but a sensitive microdisk; and not the deliberate transformation of a once-great city into a prison zone, but the seismic transformation of Los Angeles into a diseased miniature continent apart from North America.
Plissken, played with a sneering gusto by Kurt Russell, holds up well as a screen character in the Clint Eastwood/Charles Bronson/Lee Marvin tradition. This time, the chronic lawbreaker is reprieved from a life sentence (yeah, right) on condition he enter the forbidden zone of L.A., capture the renegade daughter (A.J. Langer) of a religious-right president (Cliff Robertson) and reclaim the controls to a satellite system that could revert civilization to the Stone Age.
As with “Escape from New York,” getting there is most of the fun, and the big climax reaffirms Carpenter’s love of shaggy-dog stories and punch-line endings. It’s satire disguised as schlock, and Carpenter gleefully skewers the extremists who befoul American politics and popular culture even as he leads the audience through some of the doggonedest views on record of a shot-to-heck future.
An assortment of famous landmarks - in ruins - provides the backdrop for Russell’s (usually) violent encounters with the likes of Peter Fonda (as a relentless surfer), Steve Buscemi (as an ambitious scam artist), Pam Grier (in an uncharacteristically butch get-up as a gang boss) and Bruce Campbell (as a mad doctor - a warped plastic surgeon, to be precise).
Stacy Keach anchors things as the prison boss who ropes Russell into this mess, and Valeria Golino makes plenty of a small part as a drifter who might become a sidekick for Russell. However much rancor there may be in the Plisskin character, Russell plays the role with an essentially robust good humor - a good guy to have on your side when the chips are down.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A.” Locations: North Division, Lincoln Heights and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: directed by John Carpenter; starring Kurt Russell, Stacy Keach, Steve Buscemi, Pam Grier, Bruce Campbell and Cliff Robertson Running time: 1:38 Rating: R