I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Escape from New York vs. Escape from L.A.

Recently some joker spread a phony story on the internet about how Kurt Russell had tricked Paramount into greenlighting ESCAPE FROM EARTH, a third Snake Plissken movie, as part of a three picture deal. I knew it was too good to be true, but I also know that Russell always says Snake is his favorite character he’s ever played, and he clearly loves working with John Carpenter. Carpenter could use a return to the big screen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if after Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF comes out next year (starring Kurt Russell as a killer stuntman and scored by Carpenter) there is a rise in popularity and nostalgia for the classic Kurt Russell badass roles. I think it would actually be smart to make a new Plissken movie right now as long as it wasn’t a huge budget and it wasn’t a rehash of the other two. So, their loss I guess. And the world’s.

Of course, reading this horse shit got ME nostalgic for the old John Carpenter badass movies, so I watched THEY LIVE again, because that’s my favorite (sorry Kurt). And then I did something I never did before, I watched ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and ESCAPE FROM L.A. in a row, to get a better comparison. It’s sort of like one of those puzzles where there’s two similar drawings and you have to pick out what’s different. Hey, wait a minute, that baseball player is holding an ear of corn instead of a bat and shit like that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a doctor’s office, but they have Highlights there sometimes.

Escape from New YorkESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is of course a classic. It’s a good dark-future concept, the idea of Manhattan being turned into a maximum security prison where the country’s most notorious outlaws are walled in and are free to live or fight as they please (they have prisons kind of like that in some countries, see the movie CARANDIRU for example). I’m not sure it’s meant as a comment on the “hard on crime” poses politicians took in the ’80s, but there is something beautifully horrible about the Statue of Liberty being turned into the lookout tower and security headquarters of the world’s biggest prison. Poetic injustice.

The low budget and the now-dated idea of futuristic computer technology help to create the cool, gloomy vibe of the movie. Almost the whole thing takes place at night, and the apocalyptic, burnt up city streets match pretty well with the fake but cool looking model shots of the city. All the maniac WARRIORS and ROAD WARRIOR types look right at home in this world, as does Isaac Hayes as the A-#1 Duke of New York. And it’s all glued together by yet another classic John Carpenter keyboard score with a catchy theme song and lots of atmospheric low droning bass vibrations. It’s a very dark and cynical feel only occasionally pierced by the cab driver played by Ernest Borgnine, who likes to play the American Bandstand theme song from his tape deck.

Just as great as this world is the concept of the story: the president (Donald Pleasance) has crash-landed in Manhattan, and he has in his possession an audio tape that is needed to stop a world war. The criminals inside have the president hostage and will kill him if the police come close. So they decide that the only way to save the world is to send a criminal – legendary war hero turned infamous bank robber Snake Plissken. And to secure Snake’s cooperation they inject him with an explosive capsule that they will only neutralize once he’s returned with the president and the tape.

Still, none of this would work that well if you didn’t have a great, charismatic anti-hero badass at the center. Luckily, Snake is just that. Russell is clearly copying Clint’s quiet voice and stoic presence, but he does it well. And his look (eyepatch, long hair, scowl, sleeveless black shirt) is as iconic as just about any character in the history of badass cinema. You barely see or hear from him in the first 15 minutes of the movie, but when they give him his mission his “I don’t give a fuck” attitude is established quickly. My favorite bit is when they start talking to him about the president and he asks, “The president of what?”

You also got a great supporting cast. Of course there’s Hayes and Borgnine, and COCKFIGHTER’s Harry Dean Stanton as Brain. But most of all there’s Lee Van God Damn Cleef as the government asshole in charge of Snake’s mission.

As great as this movie is, I have to admit that it is lacking a small little something. It has the characters, it has the story, it definitely has the atmosphere. But to me it doesn’t quite have the slow but powerful drive of the best Carpenter movies. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, THE THING, HALLOWEEN, and yes, even THEY LIVE… these are movies that pull you along with the slow, determined rhythm of a heartbeat, and imperceptibly stack on the tension a little at a time as they march toward the climax. To me, no matter how many times I watch it, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK doesn’t quite have that. It makes me a little sleepy after a while. I’m not trying to diminish the legend or anything. I love this movie. I just have to admit that it’s not perfect.

Escape from L.A.Now, I’m gonna catch hell for this, but I gotta be honest. I don’t think ESCAPE FROM L.A. has that problem as much. In that one, the action escalates until it gets ridiculous, then Snake jumps from a flaming helicopter to have his ultimate showdown with the authorities and give the whole world the middle finger. A very satisfying ending, and the one I always point to when I get pissed off thinking about how Vin Diesel sold out to the government at the end of XXX and instead of turning the tables on them just took their money and hung out on a beach. Snake would rather cut off his own dick than do something like that.

This sequel definitely has other problems though. I can partly understand why it has such a bad reputation. The main thing is that it’s more of a remake than a sequel. They take the template of the first movie but mix things around to fit the culture and the landmarks of Los Angeles. Snake gets caught again, he’s given a virus again, he’s sent on a mission again. He comes in on a submarine instead of a glider, but his closeup inside the cockpit looks almost the same. Instead of Borgnine’s taxi driver as his guide and transportation he has Steve Buscemi as Maps To the Stars Eddie. Instead of facing the Duke of New York, who has chandeliers on his car, he fights Cuervo Jones, who has dollheads and a disco ball on his car. Instead of a tape he has to get a disc, and he pulls a switch again. He even uses some of the same lines (“Call me Snake”) and instead of “I thought you were dead” everybody tells him “I thought you were taller.” Instead of fake looking models there’s fake looking CGI (which is not as charming).

The best and most misunderstood remake element is what they chose to do as the L.A. version of gladiatorial combat. In the first one, Snake is forced into the ring to fight a huge, scary looking wrestler, and he ends up killing him with a wooden plank with nails in it. In ESCAPE FROM L.A. it looks like the same thing is going to happen, but they lead him through all the gladiatorial fighting and into a fenced off basketball court. Instead of fighting a guy he has to fight the shot clock. He has to make ten points going from hoop to hoop, but if he misses a shot or fails the ten second shot clock then they’ll execute him.

Plus, he’s getting tired and dizzy from the Plutonium-7 virus he’s been injected with. But of course, Snake turns out to be really good at basketball, and he pulls it off. Who would’ve ever guessed Snake Plissken was good at basketball? This is not something I ever considered. I love this scene.

There are other, more Californian encounters. Peter Fonda plays a surfer always looking to ride tsunami waves, and this leads to a hilariously ridiculous action sequence where Snake jumps from a surfboard onto a car. There’s also a little run-in with some OMEGA MAN type hooded freaks who kidnap Snake and bring him to Bruce Campbell as “the surgeon general of Beverly Hills” who needs fresh parts for vanity transplants. And the climactic battle (involving a phony looking hang glider battle) takes place at Happy Kingdom By the Sea, formerly Disneyland. (Apparently Anaheim is included in Los Angeles Island.)

So it’s a rehash and it’s a little more silly and absurd than the original, and that’s what people hate. But I think this movie is really underrated. The most important aspect of both movies is Snake Plissken, and I think he’s improved with age. He looks tougher, he gets to fight alot more, he gets to do more stunts, and he shows his amoral side even more. When he’s given a mission by the president at the beginning, he doesn’t even know who the guy is, then when he finds out he tries to strangle him. When he’s about to leave on the submarine he asks the agents in charge of him if they will be administering the antidote to him when he gets back, and when they say no he immediately tries to gun them down. He has a great scene where he’s surrounded by gunmen and he offers to “give you assholes a chance.” Then he beats them by cheating. I can’t get enough of this character. I wish he would come back.

Of course, Carpenter hasn’t made a theatrical movie since the bummer of GHOSTS OF MARS in 2001, he’s only done a little bit of TV. My internet pals Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan wrote two episodes of the cable anthology series MASTERS OF HORROR that were directed by Mr. Carpenter. I actually thought their “Cigarette Burns” was pretty good for TV, with a fun concept and some crazy fucked up shit (my favorite part is when Udo Kier casually reveals that he has a weird albino angel boy with its wings cut off chained up in his living room, and he keeps it on a turntable so he can properly display it to people. You don’t see that shit on CRIBS). But I’ve heard nothing but bad things about the series in general. Some people like “Homecoming,” the Joe Dante one where the restless dead Iraq veterans come back as zombies and instead of eating brains they demand the right to vote. Of course I like that concept, but I thought the execution was corny and didn’t ring true.

So it might be premature to be expanding on that type of Masters-of-You-Name-It format, but still… why not a MASTERS OF BADASS? We team the great badasses, new and old, with directors of action classics as well as visionaries who maybe wouldn’t normally work in action. And with the low budget and hour long format they will be more willing to experiment. Of course you gotta have Seagal, Van Damme, Stallone, Bruce, Chow Yun Fat, Wesley Snipes, Sonny Chiba, Gordon Liu, maybe dig up Bruce Li if he’s still alive. You could try for Clint. And of course Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier. Roddy Piper. You could ask Jet, Jackie, Tony Jaa. Brian Bosworth if you need a slot to fill.

For directors you gotta get John McTiernan, John Woo, maybe Andrew Davis, Michael Winner, Mike Hodges, Takeshi Kitano, John Flynn, Craig Baxley. You could ask Tarantino and Eastwood, might as well try.

But most of all you gotta have a John Carpenter/Kurt Russell episode. Maybe you don’t trust the tv anthology format, maybe you think Carpenter lost it because of GHOSTS OF MARS, maybe you’re one of those weirdos in the majority who don’t like VAMPIRES. But you’d still watch the Russell/Carpenter reunion, right? Come on pay cable, let’s do this.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 7th, 2006 at 12:09 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

29 Responses to “Escape from New York vs. Escape from L.A.”

  1. That’s a fantastic idea about the Masters of Badass Vern. I think its a winning formula although I’d be worried that with the low budgets more directors might opt for the cheap CGI rather then the old style visual effects.

  2. Might catch a lot of heat for this but I have to admit I’ve never liked either of these movies. I think Snake is the epitomy of badass and the idea of the first one is kind of cool but they never did anything for me. First one has that gloomy mood you’re talking about for like the first half hour or so and then just gets really bland. The sequel doesn’t even have the first good 30 minutes but it does have the advantage of a cooler looking and more tough Snake. Like I said I like Snake in the first one but he’s kind of too babyfaced for me to buy he’s this badass war veteran. L.A. also some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen in my life. If this movie was some DTV effort I might have given it a pass and maybe even thought it was hilarious, but like with GI Joe I can’t excuse the sloppy effects work because of the films pretty big budget. I still had a good time reading your reviews anyway though Vern.

    P.S. I’d be interested in a third chapter to this series but only as long as Snake’s not escaping from anything. Seriously…come up with a new idea.

  3. A#1 – ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is a GOOD movie, but not a great one. Iconic look, great set up FANTASTIC first 15mins or so… but once he’s ont he island, it never really picks up steam. I always felt that, with the ticking time bomb in his veins that this should have built to the kind of velocity that made MAD MAX (1&2) so great. But it doesn’t. Which is a shame.

    I seem to remember reading something Drew wrote about what the ESCAPE FROM LA script was before budget cutbacks. It might even be mentioned in Bruce Campbells book ‘If Chins Could Kill’. Whatever, I too LIKE it. It has a whole lot wrong with it, but it has a whole lot right. Great trailer if I remember rightly. And another great openign section. But everything that doesn’t QUITE work about it, is worth it for THAT ending. It’s been a while, so forgive me if I misremember, but doesn’t Snake Basically switch the WHOLE WORLD off line??? That might be the very defination of cynical, anti Hollywood BADASS cinema… it’s a film more than worth another look. But from all I’ve heard a shadow of the film that might have been.

    Have to say, I’d love a 3rd installment. With Russell playing Snake as an old timer, cranky out on his porch in the wilderness maybe??? Or hell, a futureworld reworking of Treasure Island with Snake in the John Silver role… that could work. Maybe?

  4. With Carp’s new movie THE WARD screening in Toronto, a probably 2011 review, Vern you need to catch up on your Carpenter movies to go review.

  5. so I watched Escape from L.A. tonight too and eh, it was ok I guess

    the movie pretty much loses all steam by the time Snake hang-glides into NOT Disney Land, but up until that point it’s pretty good save for the laughably awful CGI, man that submarine sequence looks like something out of an episode of fucking Reboot

    I did think the movie should have done more with the “American theocracy” thing, I mean the idea of a fascist America deporting atheists, homosexuals (presumably) and Muslims among other people is scary and interesting, but most of L.A. is just filled with typical thugs and criminals, I know it’s an action movie, but they should have showed more normal people forced to live in this hellhole to help set it apart from the first movie

    still, it was a pretty nice looking movie and the blu ray had a surprisingly good transfer, that’s always a plus

  6. For the first time ever, I watched the alternate opening of Snake robbing a bank on the blu-ray of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and even though I think they made the right decision cutting it out, it´s still a great scene to watch and actually speaks volumes about Snake´s character. This guy is loyal as shit to you. If you befriend Snake Plissken,you´ve got it made.

    The scene may seem pointless, because they say “less is more”, but it´s a great little deleted scene
    for those who were curious of how Snake got caught in the first place. And it wasn´t because
    he was dumb or anything. And best of all i found it on Youtube :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36EVy2hEAxU

  7. hi!,I really like your writing very a lot! percentage we be in contact more approximately your post on AOL? I need an expert in this house to resolve my problem. May be that’s you! Taking a look ahead to see you.

  8. So Charlie Hunnam is apparently the favorite to play Snake in the upcoming EFNY remake that Joel Silver is producing.

    http://www.thewrap.com/escape-from-new-york-reboot-following-group-thinking-of-avengers-x-men-justice-league/

    Also the remake script apparently will be a “team” movie.

  9. The SONS OF ANARCHY numpty and the guy from DOWNTON ABBEY?

    What’s the rationale behind those casting choices? Neither of those guys is a big star, so the film can’t be sold on their presence alone – and if they’re not planning to do that, they could cast pretty much anybody, including guys who’d at least somewhat look the part. What’s that guy who played Sawyer in LOST doing at the moment?

  10. In all fairness CEPE, when the original was made, Kurt Russell was more or less “That former child star from those Disney movies” so who knows what they got up to their sleeve.

  11. I don’t mind the provenance or background of the these actors, CJ – Stevens is/was good in DOWNTON and by all accounts he acquits himself well in a very different part in THE GUEST – but they’re simply not very Snake-like to me.

    I generally question the wisdom of making what is sure to be an updated/modernised take on EFNY, considering that the modern gear and hardware will bring it uncomfortably close to METAL GEAR SOLID in terms of appearance. So it’d seem like the remake was taking inspiration from a popular homage to the original film.

    (I just had this great idea, you guys! What if they made Snake a woman in this one, and instead of an eye-patch, she’s got this removable camera-eyeball that she can throw round corners and stuff. You could also include these MAD MAX-esque antisocial types as a new type of adversary, or even go wilder and drop in some knights and other medieval paraphernalia. I bet that’d make for a tonally coherent and entertaining film that’s in no way less than the sum of its parts.)

  12. Just give Frank Grillo an eyepatch and get it over with.

  13. If it has to happen (and it really doesn’t), I’ll happily second Frank Grillo.

  14. CJ Holden – what I don’t get is why Hunnam is being casted as the lead in several movies right now. (Especially after PACIFIC RIM, he wasn’t exactly considered a highlight.) Guy Ritchie apparently has him playing his King Arthur. Almost reminds me of Taylor a Kitsch a few years back when he had several movies come out within a few months of each other because at around the same time Hollwood thought he was the next hot shit. (Why? I’ll never understand that. I mean I get say a Chris Pratt which that upcoming JURASSIC PARK sequel snagged I think after that first trailer for GOTG dropped. I could be wrong though on the timing.)

    Padre – well this is lazy casting on my part but catching THE PURGE: ANARCHY which basically was a decent John Carpenter rip-off, you had Grillo running down abandoned city blocks in what obviously was inspired by EFNY. Sure he would have to grow a beard and act less empathetic, but I wouldn’t have trouble accepting him for that part.

  15. RRA, the answer is plain and simple; He’s good. Watch a couple of SONS OF ANARCHY episodes and you’ll find that he has a great screen presence.

  16. The Undefeated Gaul

    September 1st, 2014 at 4:43 am

    Charlie Hunnam is decent, but he’s not right for Snake. Jon Bernthal though, that would be an inspired choice. Talk about a guy that has presence and badassness dripping out of his pores.

    Also would like to state my disappointment that they’re making ANOTHER King Arthur film and AGAIN it’s not an adaptation of The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell, the best version of that story that was ever written down. Hollywood really missed a step by never adapting that one, back in the early 00’s that would have made a fine companion to the Braveheart, Gladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven type of R rated spectacles that they still did back then.

  17. Hunnams a pretty boy, fuck that. Grillo or Bernthal are good. I would also suggest Bronson look-alike Nick DaMici from STAKE LAND, but he could be a bit old.

  18. They were all pretty boys – Clint, Kurt, Mel – before someone gave them a cool outfit and told them to grow a beard.

  19. I’ve only seen Hunnam in PACIFIC RIM, where he was an utterly unlikable peckerhead with no presence or charisma whatsoever, and that was in a story that stacked the deck to get the audience to relate to him. An antihero like Snake with little to no redeeming qualities seems totally out of his wheelhouse. Basically I’d rather have anyone else on earth. Channing Tatum. Jodi Foster. Kermit the Frog. Anyone.

  20. I don’t know about Snake, but I’m glad people are looking at Bernthal for leading roles, because I’m positive he’s gonna do some amazing stuff when he gets the chance. Until then he’ll just keep stealing movies and TV shows.

  21. Clint, Kurt, Mel may have been “pretty” at some stage, but they also gave off the vibe that something was boiling away underneath the tough veneer. And the less we knew about their characters and back stories the more cool and iconic they were. The Man With No Name. The Road Warrior. Vern. Call me Snake. Call me Plissken. You don’t like me? Then fuck you, jack. Make my day, motherfucker.

    These pretty boys are gonna need a hell of a lot more than a gym membership and good facial bone structure to be considered badass.

    Also, Bernthal was great in GRUDGE MATCH as DeNiro’s estranged son. Good movie. I like Stallone in these quieter, more dramatic roles.

  22. That’s who that dude is? I like that dude. You can’t fake a nose like that. He’s not right for Snake but I think he’s got potential.

  23. So you’re saying that they should get a former child star with a cherubic face that’s done a lot of televison work, an slightly overrated biopic and a pretty funny car movie?

  24. ‘I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a doctor’s office, but they have Highlights there sometimes.’

    I’ve had a rough time lately, and that made me smile. Thanks for that :)

  25. I don’t know if you get notified when people post on older reviews (or at all, actually), but you turned out to be absolutely right about Bernthal. His cemetary speech as the Punisher made me cry. The Punisher. Made me cry. Unbelievable.

    Oh, and I prefer LA over New York, myself, if only for that 100% badass ending. I used to have it on an Mp3 player and can pretty much quote the whole exchange.

  26. So this weekend I decided to see if Escape from LA is any better in a world post-Force Awakens, post-Creed, post-basically any movie that’s supposed to be a sequel but also serves as a soft reboot. I mean, that’s basically the norm in franchise filmmaking these days, and this movie and Carrie 2 are pioneers in the field, so time should be kind to this one, right?

    Answer: No. What I thought was perfectly “meh” back in ’96 was barely watchable this time. Just smug, dull and tedious, like listening to someone tell you an incredibly long joke they’ve already told you before, except they’re not telling it as well as they did the first time. I mean, I’m a guy who actually LIKES binge-watching remakes with the original movies straight in a row, and I was honestly tempted to turn this off about halfway through. I’m hard-pressed to think of a single thing that’s improved here – Stacy Keach isn’t as good as Lee Van Cleef. Steve Buscemi isn’t as good as Harry Dean Stanton. George Corraface (who I actually kinda liked) is no Isaac Hayes. The music isn’t as good (I actually kinda hated that on-the-nose parody Western theme they kept playing over and over and over), and yes, the FX are unbelievably worse than they were in the first one, despite 15 years of technological advancements. The CGI here may be the worst CGI I’ve ever seen in a theatrical release, and putting it alongside the beautiful models and miniatures from the first one should be Exhibit A in the “Practical is Better!” argument.

    I guess the question you have to ask yourself with watching any remake is “would I like this if the original didn’t exist?” And i have to admit, if Escape from NY didn’t exist and LA was the first and only Snake Plissken adventure, this would definitely be a surreal, campy cult classic. I’d probably like it! But NY does exist and LA just feels like a soulless cash grab, like Carpenter giving the studio (and the audience) the middle finger while smoking up the $50 million budget (it certainly isn’t onscreen). I would actually watch the bugnuts Ghosts of Mars before watching this one again, which is really saying something.

  27. Carpenters always had pacing problems with a lot of his films. I understand wanting to turn one off if you aren’t into the JC vibe. EFLA is not one of his best, but it’s a personal favorite of mine. The less than convincing CGI is actually pretty charming. There were other crappy-CGI ones that year, like THE FRIGHTENERS and THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS. And good-CGI (for their time) like ID4 and TWISTER. But out of all those films (all of which I saw in cinemas), EFLA is the only one that I loved and still watch. (The mate I saw it with hated it.)

    Also, I’ve been wanting to revisit TGATD for some time now, but it seems to have disappeared from dvd distribution.

  28. I’m a massive Carpenter fan. This one was just a big disappointment but I don’t hate it. There are some scenes that I enjoy.

  29. Fuck that orientalist BIG TROUBLE jazz, I want an EFLA prequel comic about the adventures of “Black Jihad” in the Los Angeles sewer system.

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