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'L.A.': Great Escapism

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 09, 1996

In the bleak, cultish "Escape From New York," made in 1981, the Manhattan of the future (well, 1997) as transformed into a gotham-size prison for criminals. When the American president (Donald Pleasence) was kidnapped and held by punks in the city, government forces dispatched "Snake" Plissken (played by Kurt Russell), an eye patch-wearing tough guy to spring the Chief Executive.

"Escape From L.A.," which reunites Russell with director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, takes up the story 16 years after the New York escapade. The president (Cliff Robertson), a religious demagogue who operates from his home base in, uh, Lynchburg, Va., has forced America into a puritanical police state: no smokes, no red meat, no sex without marriage.

Snake, still wearing the patch and the brown leather jacket, is summoned again by dark-suited government powers. It seems the president’s renegade daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), has stolen the key to a doomsday device and escaped to Los Angeles. The city, surrounded by a natural moat (thanks to a devastating earthquake), has become a de facto holding cell for angry dissidents, including Utopia’s warlord-boyfriend, Cuervo Jones (George Corraface).

Snake refuses to retrieve the key until the president informs him that he has been infected with a fatal virus. He has nine hours to live. If he completes the mission in time, the government will give him an instant cure. In his trash-mythic quest, Snake meets an amusing, post-apocalyptic queue of helpers, including Utopia; an aging surfer-dude called Pipeline (Peter Fonda); a savvy survivor called Taslima (Valeria Golino); and Hershe (Pam Grier), an old male friend of Snake’s who is now a female friend. Snake is also befriended by a shady character called Map to the Stars Eddie (the ubiquitous, but delightful Steve Buscemi), who claims to have the inside dope on Cuervo.

Compared to "Escape From New York," the weapons are bigger and the violence is more extensive, although it’s toned down by today’s excessive standards. There are also greater special effects this time, involving holograms and nuclear-powered submarines. But "Escape From L.A." is more enjoyable in a playful way. The movie takes not-so-subtle digs at the Christian Right, Hollywood’s obsession with plastic surgery, and Walt Disney. And in the special effects department, Snake and hippie friend Pipeline surf on the crest of a tsunami all the way down Wilshire Boulevard.

"Escape From L.A." also replicates many of the elements from its predecessor. In the first film, for instance, a disembodied voice informs prisoners heading out to the Manhattan prison that they have "the option to terminate and be cremated on the premises." That sentiment is picked up again, as convicts headed for Los Angeles are given this message: "You now have the option to repent for your sins and be electrocuted on the premises." The more things change, it seems, the more they remain the same.

ESCAPE FROM L.A. (R) — Contains violence, profanity and sexual situations.

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