By Ray Schwetz
In the summer of 1996, the eagerly awaited follow-up to John Carpenter's cult classic "Escape From New York" opened in theatres. The film, "Escape From L.A.," opened to lukewarm box office and reviews. Personally, I felt the sequel was a hugely entertaining remake of "Escape From New York." Sure, we've covered this territory before, but it was great to see Snake Plissken back in action.
This time around, Snake is sent by the new President (Cliff Robertson, admittedly a poor substitute for the late, great Donald Pleasance) to L.A., which is now (you guessed it) an area where Earth's undesirables are exiled. His mission is to retrieve the President's daughter from terrorist Cuervo Jones (George Corraface, admittedly a poor substitute for Isaac Hayes) in 24 hours or a lethal virus will infect his bloodstream.
If the plot gives you a feeling of deja vu, you're not alone. That's why I consider this film to be an inferior update of the first film, rather than a sequel. As Snake himself growls, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Even though the film suffers in comparison to the original, however, it is a fun popcorn movie with Kurt Russell returning in the role that changed his career for the better. He is, to director John Carpenter, what DeNiro is to Scorcese.
The supporting players do not fare as well, especially when compared to those in the original film. Stacey Keach, while serviceable, is no match for Lee Van Cleef. Only Pam Grier (as a kick-ass transsexual) and Bruce Campbell (as an evil plastic surgeon) fare well here. Even the clever inclusion of Peter Fonda (as a beatnik surfer) seems a bit forced.
The best part about "Escape From L.A.," aside from re-uniting the director/star team of "The Thing" and "Big Trouble In Little China," is the updated special effects and the Carpenter/Shirley Walker score. While some of the effects are kinda cheesy and seemingly rushed (some CGI and rear projection shots really should've been tweaked), the overall effect is a much more ambitious film than "Escape From New York."
As for the score...well, if you're a fan of Carpenter's work, you don't need me to point out how talented a musician the man is. His minimalist style themes gel well with Walker's orchestral arrangements. The score CD is a must-have for the true Carpenter fan.
Paramount's movie-only DVD presentation of "Escape From L.A." is a disappointment overall. This is one of their earlier releases and I hope they re-visit it with a special edition in the future. As far as movie-only editions go, this is a pricey DVD that can only be recommended to hardcore fans of the film.
The non-anamorphic widescreen transfer is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The result is very nice, with strong colors, excellent black levels, and very little artifacting. An anamorphic transfer is preferred, but there are no serious complaints here. The 5.1 audio mix is outstanding. There are tons of surround effects and the subs will get quite a workout. This is a standout audio mix.
As I said, this is a movie-only edition DVD. There is a great trailer on the disc, but this is surely a missed opportunity. Perhaps the film didn't perform as well as the studio had hoped and that's why there's no special edition currently in the works. After hearing Carpenter's other excellent laserdisc and DVD commentaries (some with Russell, i.e. "The Thing," "Escape From New York"), it's a real shame a commentary wasn't recorded for "L.A." Again, to be fair, this is one of Paramount's early releases and their output of late has been outstanding. Hey Paramount, how about a special edition DVD to coincide with the theatrical releases of Carpenter's "Ghosts of Mars?"