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Blu-ray Review: Escape From L.A.

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Fifteen years after filmmaker John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell teamed up to deliver what became one of the greatest cult classics in American cinema history, they decided to do it all over again. Escape From L.A. was not a new concept for either celebrity: the movie had been envisioned at least a decade before the project ever had a green light. But, there were several “differences of opinions” on behalf of its creators: Carpenter thought is was “too light” and “too campy,” whereas Russell was gung-ho about reprising his role as mercenary anti-hero Snake Plissken. And so, Escape From L.A. sort of sat in limbo for a long time until Kurt Russell finally persuaded Carpenter and producer Debra Hill to give it a go.

The result was an epic failure; one far worse than the devastating 9.6 earthquake depicted in the film itself.

Now, there are a lot of people in the world that are of the opinion that John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A. should never have been made. I agree with their view — but only to an extent. My belief is that Escape From L.A. should not have been made when it was made. Carpenter should have waited a few years, and made the film at a time when computer-generated special effects had grown out of their infant stages. Why? Because the CGI FX in Escape From L.A. are terrible. Even Roger Corman’s deliberately-unreleased assassination of The Fantastic Four had better visuals.

But Escape From L.A.’s “artistic” look isn’t 100% bad. There are some aspects of the film (Kurt Russell walking down an obviously-composited freeway, the usage of miniatures and mattes, et al) that are very effective — in a completely comic book-looking way. And those moments really add to Escape From L.A.’s campy charm. And then — boom — any aesthetic value the movie may have is pushed aside when some crappy computer-generated special defects come into play. Had Carpenter have used more traditional effects all the way through the film (read: no CGI), the film would have looked a whole hell of a lot better.

Upon its release, Escape From L.A. flopped. Big time. This is mostly due to the fact that the entire film was nothing more than a remake of the original, with many moments being virtual scene-for-scene recreations. Despite the fact that Snake Plissken was a great character and a total bad-ass, audiences really had no desire to see Escape From New York all over again (which is rather ironic, seeing as how Hollywood is currently all about remaking everything in sight). Another attributing factor for Escape From L.A.’s acclaimed failure is the fact that the movie doesn’t take itself as seriously as Escape From New York.

In fact, it doesn’t take itself seriously at all. It dares you to even look at the copious servings of cheese it dishes out, let alone swallow them.

Think the extremely campy Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives vs. the deadly-serious original Friday The 13th. Yup, it’s like night and day.

But somehow, it worked for me the second time 'round.

I was rather unimpressed the first time I laid eyes on Escape From L.A. back in ‘96. It just didn’t set right with me. But having grown a little older and wiser (not to mention just a tad bit cynical) over the past fourteen years, Escape From L.A. has suddenly become something of a guilty pleasure. The film’s absurdist and satirical sense of humor towards the filmmaking industry and the metropolis that it originates from comes through even more today than when it barely did just a few short years ago. The primitive “look, don’t take us seriously” comic-like visuals have become appealing, and almost fit the movie now — especially when you compare them to certain modern special effects-laden blockbusters that blow their entire budget on CGI and rely on nothing else to entertain you.

If you can somehow suspend your disbelief long enough to take in all of James Cameron’s Avatar so seriously, you can surely handle John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A. for the fast, fun, and flippant flick that it is.

Story-wise, Escape From L.A. continues the saga of Snake Plissken, the one-eyed rouge who always seems to become the U.S. President’s last hope for salvation. The first time we met Snake, he was given the promise of parole for his nefarious bank-robbing ways if he rescued a nation’s feeble leader from the penitentiary of Manhattan in 1997. Such an act was seen as necessary to save the world. In 2013 (the calendar year of Escape From L.A.), Snake is (once again) unwillingly recruited by a devious über-Christian lifetime presidential dictator (Cliff Robertson, doing his best Pat Robertson impersonation — eerily foreshadowing a few traits of George W. Bush in the process) who has turned the nation into totalitarian hellhole; one wherein people convicted of smoking, drinking, cussing, and/or eating red meat are deposed to the island of Los Angeles, which was torn away from the mainland after a series of ruinous earthquakes. This time, he’s out to retrieve a doomsday device that has been stolen by the President’s liberal daughter; a device that could destroy the world as we know it.

Like I said: night and day.

Caught after having successfully escaped from Cleveland (never an easy task), Snake is sent in to what’s left of L.A., where he meets up with a venerable assortment of whack-jobs (including Peter Fonda as a crazy hippie surfer, Steve Buscemi as a sleazy “guide,” Georges Corraface as a decidedly Che Guevara-eqsue rebel, Pam Grier as a transsexual crime boss, and a heavily made-up Bruce Campbell as a surgical butcher). Naturally, Snake encounters one obstacle after another (mostly at the hands of the whack-jobs) as he weeds his way through a futuristic wasteland, grunting out absurd one-liners and sneering at people with his one good eye the whole time.

Seeing as how this is one of Paramount’s Blu-ray catalogue releases, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Normally, video labels don’t pour very much effort into such. You can imagine how surprised I was when I found that, not only was the movie better the second time ‘round, but the audio/video presentation of Escape From L.A. was better than I had anticipated it would be. The 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC HD transfer presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the amount of detail present here is surprising — especially when you consider how truly dark the movie is. Colors come through satisfactorily enough here, as does the contrast overall. There’s a hint of grain here and there, but, in the long run, Escape From L.A. on Blu-ray looks good.

Sound-wise, Escape From L.A.’s 50GB disc boasts an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless soundtrack, as well as French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital audio options (subtitles are available in English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese). The main English audio succeeds in giving your stereo setup a good rumble as far as sound effects and music goes. Alas, said track has a tendency to drown out the dialogue — which mostly emerges from the front speakers. Disappointing? Yes, but it’s passable.

However, the biggest disappointment with Paramount‘s Blu-ray release of Escape From L.A. lies in its illustrious Special Features section, which consists of a single trailer (shown in HD) and nothing else. Upon viewing the single trailer, one can get a glimpse of scenes that ultimately didn’t make the cut (or were re-shot). Alas, there are no signs of these missing moments in their entirety. There’s not even a retrospective featurette

In short, Escape From L.A. still isn’t a “great” film, but it has developed a rather desirable flavor over the years.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.