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Escape From L.A.  

Starring: Kurt Russell, Stacy Keach, Steve Buscemi, George Corraface, Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, Cliff Robertson Directed by: John Carpenter Written by: John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Kurt Russell Rated R Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

John Carpenter is a director who possesses such enormous confidence in the utterly outrageous. That's why his films are fun to watch. He fears nothing. He wants to have a great time making movies and will stop at nothing to do so.

He is perhaps most noted for his forays into the horror genre. And indeed, he has always been able to tell creepy campfire-like stories with the conviction necessary to make them scary. "Halloween" is perhaps his most famous film - the one he will be remembered for. But I don't believe that movie was his defining moment as a director. His defining moment came in the 1984 science-fiction drama "Starman". That was a project that went in and out of the hands of several directors, including John Badham and Tony Scott, who feared it was too similar to the smash hit "E.T.". Those directors kept trying to come up with ways to make the movie different from Spielberg's film. When Carpenter finally came on board, he realized that there was a terrific story to tell here, and had enough confidence to tell that story, regardless of the comparisons that would be made to Spielberg. The result was a hit that held it's own ground, despite some similarities to "E.T.". It's that very confidence that is behind all of John Carpenter's movies. No matter how silly some of his story lines can be, he always believes that he can pull it off, and that's his gift as a filmmaker.

Even knowing this, I still had some reservations regarding "Escape From L.A.", the sequel to the 1981 adventure "Escape From New York". I feared it would basically be nothing more than the original story retold, but with a different location. I was right. It is essentially the same story, but told with a unique visual flair and containing sequences that are goofy, outrageous, and loads of fun. This could only come from a director who has a special kind of confidence.

The city of Los Angeles is now an island, thanks to the "Great Quake of 2000". Now it is used as a place of exile; not necessarily a prison, mind you, but a place where anyone who is deemed "not worthy" is immediately sent to live out their remaining days. Criminals, atheists, prostitutes, bums, free-thinkers, Democrats - you name them, they're there. (Of course, it'd be much easier to reverse the process and place those who ARE worthy of society in Los Angeles. That would be much more suitable in terms of space.) The President of the United States (Cliff Robertson) has somehow managed to get elected to a life term and now rules the "free" land with an iron fist. But there is a problem: his only daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), not believing in her father's method of governing, has hijacked a plane and crash-landed it into Los Angeles island. She also obtained possession of a special "black box" which has the capability to eradicate the entire world of power. This is very traumatic for the President - he needs that "black box". He needs someone to go in to L.A., retrieve the "box", and kill his daughter. (A simple slap-on-the-wrist won't do, I guess.) Who better than S.D. "Snake" Plissken (Kurt Russell). The man who years earlier had escaped from the maximum security prison formerly known as Manhattan Island. After being given instructions on how to accomplish the mission by Malloy (Stacy Keach) and Brazen (Michelle Forbes), he is sent to L.A. to get the "black box" out of the hands of the vicious Cuervo Jones (George Corraface) before Jones can make his own escape. Along the way, he gets some help from some of the island's unusual inhabitants, including "Map-to-the-Stars" Eddie (Steve Buscemi), and a lonely drifter (Valeria Golino) who was sent to the island wrongfully like many others, but who seems to have adapted to her surroundings and even embraced them.

The entire plot follows precisely with the original "Escape From New York". What's fun is watching the types of silly situations Carpenter places his characters into. "Snake" Plissken looks like a typical action hero, but he isn't used like one. Yes, he's armed with automatic weapons and a slew of Bond-like "gadgets", but instead of having him spend the entire film blowing away the bad guys, (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!) Carpenter places him on a basketball court where he must complete a certain number of baskets in a certain amount of time, or else he'll be gunned down. There are plenty of scenes like that - scenes that go against the grain; that put a spin on what would normally be typical action sequences. Carpenter holds nothing back here; he places "Snake" on land, in the sea, in the air, and even on a surfboard in easily the movie's best sequence. The look of this film is terrific - it's a visual treat.

This is a film that Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell have wanted to make for a long time, and it really shows. They throw everything into this movie. The playfully over-the-top performances work well, too. No actor here is afraid of sacrificing their dignity, and that's the way it should be with a movie like this. Some movies work simply because it's obvious those involved in the making of it has an absolute blast. "Escape From L.A." is a case in point.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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