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'Escape From L.A.': Doom & Dumber

By Esther Iverem
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 09, 1996

The success of the summer blockbuster "Independence Day" has proven that a lot of Americans will pay money to see their cities in rubble. The prospect of such destruction haunts us, fascinates us. It is still our ultimate terror-fantasy.

Using this fascination as a jumping-off point, "Escape From L.A." tries but fails to be an action-hero flick or even a parody of one. Instead, in this sequel to 1981's "Escape From New York," Kurt Russell stars as the antihero Snake Plissken, who believes only in himself. Its ridiculous and depressing scenes tell us that real Americans are squeezed between a corrupt and crazy federal government and a criminal, immoral and usually dark population of city dwellers. Americans must shoot, knife and beat their way to freedom. If necessary, they must bring on Armageddon. This film could serve as an anthem for the militia movement.

Just as in "Escape From New York," when the entire island of Manhattan is turned into a maximum-security prison, "Escape From L.A." turns Los Angeles into an island prison after an earthquake breaks it off from the rest of the continental United States. Downtown skyscrapers, freeways and Universal Studios are under water. Much of what remains is rubble or is about to be rendered so by aftershocks.

Los Angeles is the place where the government, headed by an evangelical president, sends those considered criminal, immoral and generally unfit for society. The film hints that not everybody is a dangerous criminal -- one Muslim woman is sent there after her Midwestern town outlaws her religion. But the lawless streets are crowded with prostitutes, killers and all kinds of people up to no good. Living in this urban hell is punishment enough for the inmates who freely roam the streets.

Plissken's mission is to go into L.A., find the president's daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) and retrieve highly classified equipment -- which has the potential to destroy the planet -- that she has stolen. Utopia has taken up with Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), a South American revolutionary leader who heads the city-prison's army. Plissken does not work for the government willingly. After eluding the authorities for years, he has been captured. Government agents have injected a ticking viral time bomb into his body and, just as in New York, he must complete his mission in time to receive a lifesaving antidote.

As he goes on his bad-boy rounds, the action is only mildly entertaining. Some of the best scenes come when director John Carpenter (who also wrote the script along with Debra Hill and Russell) makes use of the bizarre Los Angeles landscape. In one, Plissken is taken into a Beverly Hills hospital operated both for and by people who are "surgical failures" -- they've had too many transplants and face lifts and don't quite look human. Peter Fonda makes a great surfer dude, Pam Grier does odd duty as a feared power broker living aboard an abandoned cruise ship and Steve Buscemi does a good job as a weasel who, even in this L.A., sells maps to stars' homes.

Sometimes it seems the two "Escape" movies want us to laugh at Plissken. Everyone thinks he's dead. He's shorter than everyone expects. He speaks in a gruff whisper that sounds more like he has the flu than like he's tough. And his eye patch would seem to render his peripheral vision less then action-hero perfect.

But as yet another Rambo-type drama is set up -- the lone white man with a big gun and a big mission, thrown among the dark heathens -- some of us might have a hard time laughing.

Escape From L.A. is rated R.

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