To me, John Carpenter is an amazing film maker. He’s made some of my favorite horror movies, like Halloween and The Thing amongst others. He’s also known for more action oriented movies like Assault on Precinct 13 and the comedic Big Trouble in Little China. One of his most respected action movies, and in fact one of the most respected movies of his career, is the 1981 film Escape from New York. This was a dark, dystopian thrill ride that was a major hit with audiences and critics alike, which is surprising that it took 15 years for the sequel, Escape from L.A., to finally be produced and released. While both of these movies have something good to offer, Escape from New York is a far superior film than its sequel… depending on what you’re looking for.
Let’s start with Escape from New York.
In 1988, crime in America rises by almost 400% (remember this was made in 1981) forcing the government to create the United States Police Force and also convert Manhattan into a giant maximum security prison surrounded by giant walls. When terrorists force Air Force One to crash land inside the prison walls, the president (Donald Pleascence) finds himself stranded. Luckily for him, there’s a new prisoner about to be admitted, the notorious soldier and gunslinger Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Before all of the formalities can even be completed, Snake is tasked by New York Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) to infiltrate Manhattan and save the president and in return all of Snake’s crimes on record will be cleared. As an added incentive, Snake is injected with a small explosive device that will detonate in 22 hours. Now with no other choice, Snake wages a one man war with the inmates of Manhattan.
What really grabbed my attention first was how Escape from New York looked. It is a minor visual masterpiece that perfectly sets the tone. From beginning to end, this movie is enveloped in darkness and fog and destruction. It’s exactly how a dystopian film should look. Of course, this was also done in a time before CGI, so this destroyed version of Manhattan is all just brilliant set design, miniatures, and matte painting. Speaking of design, I can’t go through this review without mentioning the iconic anti-hero, Snake Plissken. Kurt Russell growls his way through the movie and succeeds at playing one of cinema’s cult badasses. Not to mention that he was Konami’s main inspiration for Solid Snake in the Metal Gear video game series.
There’s a simplicity to the story that has also grown on me. While there is something of a message behind the story of the film, the main focus is always Snake rescuing the president. There is a pacing issue that happens about 20 minutes into the movie where it sort of grinds to a halt, but it picks up speed soon enough and I was right back into the action. The movie is a little bit dated, but there are plenty of reasons not to forget it. The cast that I’ve mentioned before, along with Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau, and Harry Dean Stanton are all great as always. The film is also just an achievement visuals, character, and the fact that you don’t need a huge budget to make an influential movie. Escape from New York truly deserves its recognition as a cult classic.
After a sequel was written in 1985 and quickly dismissed as being “to campy” by John Carpenter, the official sequel was finally released 15 years later in 1996.
After an earthquake in 2000 pretty much levels all of Los Angeles. The island that is created as a result is turned into a prison when a strict theocratic president (Cliff Robertson) is elected and implements a moral code that is enforced throughout America. When the president’s daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), is influenced by a terrorist in the L.A. prison, Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), she steals a device that can be used to control satellites orbiting the entire earth with the capability to shut down all forms of power sources on the planet. After once again being arrested and facing a life sentence in L.A., Snake is recruited to go into the prison, retrieve the device, and eliminate Utopia and Cuervo in exchange for his freedom and an antidote to a virus that has been injected into his bloodstream.
Think of this movie as the Joel Schumacher Batman movies compared to Tim Burton’s, except not as disastrous as Batman and Robin. Escape from New York had a dark and brooding atmosphere, whereas Escape from L.A. is brighter, louder, and much more excessive. That being said, there’s some really fun action sequences, but there’s a lot missing from this movie. For one thing, Snake is pretty much turned into an indestructible hero, which pretty much takes away all sorts of suspense. The special effects in this movie are also… pretty awful. I mean, Independence Day also came out in 1996, so there’s really no excuse the effects in Escape from L.A. should be so weird. I can’t even say it’s because it had a low budget because it was a $50 million production.
There’s still a lot of imagination behind a lot of the different prisoners and sets. Also, besides Kurt Russell and Cliff Robertson, there’s also cameos and supporting roles for Bruce Campbell, Pam Grier, Peter Fonda, and Steve Buscemi. It’s just really unfortunate that all of this imagination and great actors is sort of drowned out in excessive special effects, a lack of suspense, and noise. While the story does move a lot faster than its predecessor, I really missed the style, suspense, and tone of the first film. It’s also worth mentioning that the whole story is almost a perfectly recycled version of Escape from New York. Escape from L.A. isn’t an awful film, but it’s far from being any real form of good.
John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. are two very different movies. His first film is a cult classic, and rightfully so, while the second one bombed when it was released and it’s still considered a bomb today.