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Escape Artists

Robert Zuckerman

He Should Have Taken Light Rail: Snake Plissken hitches a ride in "Escape From L.A."

Director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell move to the West Coast and escape all over again

By Zack Stentz

MARK TWAIN once described Richard Wagner's music as being "better than it sounds," an apt description of why some artistic works just aren't as satisfying as we feel they ought to be. Another case in point: John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. On paper, this sounds like a sure-fire winner, at least for science-fiction/action movie fans.

In a religious fundamentalist/p.c. fascist future America, Escape From New York hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) must this time infiltrate the quake-ravaged no man's land of Los Angeles to retrieve a doomsday device stolen by the president's daughter, all the while battling a rogue's gallery of cops, gangs and plastic surgery freaks. So far so good.

Assembled for the occasion is an eccentric supporting cast seemingly scientifically designed to appeal to every segment of male pop-culture fandom, to judge from the enthusiastic reaction of the preview audience to each of their favorites' on-screen appearances.

The Tarantinoids and blaxploitation fans cheered lustily at the sight of Pam Grier (here a transgendered warlord--er, warlady) and Steve Buscemi, playing a variant on his usual fast-talking sleazeball, and trekkies hailed Michelle Forbes (Ensign Ro from Star Trek: The Next Generation) as she made use of her wonderfully throaty voice as voice-over narrator and sexy/steely screen presence as a government soldier. Latter-day hippies applauded ex-Easy Rider Peter Fonda's appearance as an aging, AK-47­toting surfer, while horror movie fans were cheered by the presence of Bruce Campbell from the Evil Dead series, here playing the ghoulish Surgeon General of Beverly Hills.

But though sequelizing a cult fave like Escape From New York and assembling this offbeat cast may put the fanboys in the palm of his hand, Carpenter proceeds to fritter away their goodwill by giving these actors nothing interesting to do.

The only one having any fun on screen is A.J. Langer, who plays the president's troubled daughter as an adrenalized variant on her sympathetic wild-child character from the late, lamented My So-Called Life TV series.

But even her considerable charms and Russell's squinting Clint Eastwood impersonation aren't enough to sustain interest in the face of a clunky script, which continually rehashes its superior ancestor. "I thought you were dead," everyone keeps telling Snake in Escape From New York. "I thought you'd be taller," they keep telling him here. Escape From New York featured a win-or-die gladiator match at the end of the second act. Escape From L.A. features a win-or-die basketball game at the end of the second act. And so on.

Still, one must give Carpenter credit, because there's something to disappoint everyone here. Political lefties hoping for the sharp social satire promised by the plot synopsis will wait in vain for anything as incisive as the capitalism and Republican-bashing of Carpenter's earlier film They Live.

From a novice director, a misfire like Escape From L.A. would be merely an annoyance. But from a USC film school-trained veteran with more than two decades of filmmaking experience like Carpenter, it's just plain inexcusable. Perhaps he should take a hint from Roman general Cincinnatus, who chose to retire at the peak of his game to return home and tend his farm. And he didn't even have the benefit of video sales and cable rights to fall back on.

Escape From L.A. (R; 100 min.), directed by John Carpenter, written by Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell, and starring Russell, Steve Buscemi and Peter Fonda.

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From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of Metro.

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