"Snake. Call me Snake."
I've asked this question before but it bears repeating: Who picks these things? I mean, in any given studio who decides what films get the high-definition treatment on Blu-ray disc? It's not that John Carpenter's 1996 follow-up film "Escape from L.A." is a bad picture; it just isn't a very good one. And it didn't make a ton of money at the box office, either. So, what's the draw here, when in this case the folks at Paramount have so many other, better, more-deserving films awaiting BD transfer? My only conclusion is that somebody in power simply likes the movie and wants a copy of it in high def. It's what I'd do.
As you no doubt know, "Escape from L.A." was Carpenter's continuation of the Snake Plissken saga, Snake being the bad-boy antihero of all bad-boy antiheroes, the baddest badass in the country, a dubious national icon, and a darned good basketball player. Kurt Russell is again the embodiment of Snake Plissken, Russell the tough, mean-tempered fellow we all remember from "The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters," "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes," "Disneyland," and other such cultural fare before becoming the cult-classic hero we know and love from "Escape from New York" (1981), "The Thing" (1982), and "Big Trouble in Little China" (1986), all with Carpenter, and then his best he-man role as Wyatt Earp in "Tombstone" (1993). As Snake, he continues talking in the hoarse whisper he used in tribute to Clint Eastwood. (It makes more sense when you consider that Lee Van Cleef was his co-star in "Escape from New York," and there are overtures of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" in "Escape from L.A.")
In a lengthy introduction, a narrator tells us that in 1998 a religious-zealot President (Cliff Robertson) predicted an earthquake would destroy Los Angeles for their wickedness, immorality, sin, and depravity. By coincidence, that very year a 9.7 quake devastated the city, leaving it in ruins and separating it from mainland America. The President's popularity soared, and he got the Constitution changed to allow him a lifetime term in office. He became a dictator and established a fascist state, complete with a United States Police Force. He also declared the island of Los Angeles a point of deportation, a sort of penal colony for undesirables deported from the U.S. "Undesirables" included anyone the government didn't like or anyone who disagreed with them. You know, criminals, Communists, atheists, Muslims, and the like. Once they sent you to the island, you never got off (apparently, not even by vote).
No women (except between husband and wife).
No foul language.
No red meat.
Land of the free."
You can see by all of this that Carpenter intended his movie more for laughs--as a satire of government, a dig at ultraconservative values, and a parody of his earlier "Escape from New York"--than for straight-ahead action. The trouble is, the humor is so broad, exaggerated, obvious, and clichéd, the movie has more of a numbing effect than an entirely comic one.
So, where does the infamous Snake Plissken fit in? That's where the plot turns even more cartoonish. After the lengthy exposition described above, we learn that a revolutionary leader, Cuervo Jones (George Orraface), has duped the President's daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), into stealing a "black box" of secret-weapons codes and delivering it to him to help him overthrow the present regime. Since Plissken is always in trouble with the government (for reasons we never learn; just accept that Snake is a really bad hombre and has done something remarkably vile, like swearing on Sunday), the government is about to deport him to L.A. But the President offers him a full pardon if he'll go into the island community and retrieve the black box.
And that's it. That's Plissken's mission. Bring back the box. Oh, and kill the daughter. The President may be a dedicated Christian, but he's not into all this forgive-and-forget nonsense.
The rest of the movie, the remaining 95% of it, has Snake shooting and slugging people, running around a lot, and blowing stuff up as he attempts to find Cuervo Jones, the President's daughter, and the black box. The fun, what little there is of it, is in watching Plissken wander hither and yon meeting a variety of oddball characters and confronting various villainous types, almost all of them recognizing him and greeting him with the line, "I thought you'd be taller."
Among the eccentrics Snake encounters are "Map to the Stars" Eddie (Steve Buscemi), a low-life con artist and the funniest guy in the picture; Pipeline (Peter Fonda), an overaged surfer dude; Taslina (Valeria Golino), a beautiful counterrevolutionary; Commander Malloy (Stacy Keach), the head of the L.A. deportation center; Hershe Las Palmas (Pam Grier), Snake's old partner and now...a changed person; and the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (Bruce Campbell), a big-shot plastic surgeon intent of harvesting body parts from live donors.
More low points: The CGI is not really very convincing for a movie of this vintage. It often looks cheap and awkward, more a product of 1966 than 1996. The film's logic is nonexistent, even for a silly fantasy adventure. For instance, there is no mention of how the people of L.A. live, how they survive, how they feed themselves when nobody appears to work or plant or farm the land. Instead, people just party, mostly in the streets, and knife and kill each other in public, the irony being that people seem to be freer in L.A. than in the rest of the country.
Anyway, for all its commotion, "Escape from L.A." never catches fire, never drums up any real enthusiasm for its subject matter. It's just a series of short episodes, skit comedy so to speak. When John Carpenter finished the movie, he did "Vampires" (1998) and "Ghosts of Mars" (2001) before practically giving it up for the next eight or nine years. It looks like he's back in action with several new films coming up, so we wish him the best. He gave us some fine films; "Escape from L.A." just isn't one of them.
Give the film points for a good, wide aspect ratio: 2.35:1. Points for a good, dual-layer transfer: BD50. More points for a good audiovisual codec: MPEG-4. Further points for a good, clean screen, a fairly deep color palette, and a reasonable amount of detail. And points yet again for an absence of halos, edge enhancement, or excessive filtering. Now, if only the picture were more interesting to watch. As it is, the image is slightly dull, veiled, and subdued, the island-city of Los Angeles shrouded in what seems like eternal night. "Dark City" anyone?
Paramount's lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack provides plenty of thudding, pounding, nerve-jangling audio, thanks to one-note composer John Carpenter's musical track (aided and abetted by co-composer Shirley Walker) and the studio's sound-effects department. If you respond to this sort of thing, the sonics provide a fine front-channel response--wide and dynamic--with very deep bass but very little imagination in the surrounds. We hear a little thunder, a few ricochetting bullets, and some musical bloom. Otherwise, the soundtrack wastes its potential on the usual action-movie noises. The earthquakes rock, though.
Given that this was not a particularly well-received or profitable film, the Blu-ray disc comes with practically nothing in the way of bonus items. The main thing is a widescreen, high-definition theatrical trailer. Other than that, we get twenty-seven scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Action fans may wish that "Escape from L.A." had more meat on its bones. As it is, the film wanders about without much wit or wisdom, much like the protagonist himself. With a bone-jarring soundtrack, empty-headed characters, and an even emptier plot line, the movie has little to offer beyond the thrill of seeing Snake Plissken back in action. It isn't quite enough.
"He did it. He shut down the Earth!"