Apocalypse Here (Los Angeles Daily News/Aug/1996/US) By Bob Strauss


Director John Carpenter, star Kurt Russell and producer Debra Hill had been knocking around the idea of a sequel to Escape From New York for a decade.

It took Mother Nature, though, to jolt them into action.

"The earthquake, and the riots also, got us going big time,'' said the man whose name is in the title of John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. "Before that, basically, we had no story; we couldn't figure out what is L.A. We had a script written by a guy in 1985. That story was about Los Angeles being an insane asylum of some sort. But it didn't work; it's funny for a second, but there's no story involved.

"It was only after all of these disasters that we started thinking about getting to the real nature of the place,'' Carpenter added. "And we also started thinking about the America of the future.''

What Carpenter, Hill and Russell, who share Escape From L.A. screenwriting credit, came up with has a really involved story - satirically detailed on the local, national and even international level.

Set in 2013, after the Big One has separated the island of L.A. from the rest of the continent, and America has become a moralistic dictatorship, Snake Plissken is forced back into action. Russell's one-eyed soldier of fortune, who rescued an earlier president from the Manhattan Island penal colony in the 1981 movie, must now cross the San Fernando Sea to retrieve a doomsday weapon the new president-for-life's (Cliff Robertson) rebellious daughter (A.J. Langer) has given to the ruthless Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), the leader of L.A.'s anti-government rebels.

Got all that? There's much, much more. As Plissken wanders through the wrecked, anarchic City of Angels, he doesn't just encounter all the moral undesirables who have been exiled there. He meets such mutant Angelenos as Map to the Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi), an ex-agent who is now making literal cutthroat deals; Hershe (Pam Grier with an electronically lowered voice), a transsexual crime queenpin who operates out of the beached grandeur of the Queen Mary; and the grisly Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (Bruce Campbell), who has turned the Beverly Hills Hotel into an operating theater of cosmetic surgery cruelty.

Then there's a new kind of sudden-death basketball game played at a decidedly Romanized L.A. Coliseum. And tsunami surfing down the newly formed Wilshire Canyon. Of course, the climactic title escape is from the "Happy Land by the Sea'' theme park (Disney would not permit the Paramount production to use its corporate name; Universal, however, had no problem with Carpenter submerging their landmark property).

It all adds up to a darkly comic vision of L.A. life on the edge.

"It's about modern-day Pompeii,'' said former child star, and therefore longtime L.A. resident, Russell. "When I was a kid, I read somewhere that they knew that volcano was going to go off and I thought to myself, how do you be that stupid?

"Then Goldie (Hawn, Russell's longtime girlfriend) and I were traveling around Italy,'' he continued. "We went to Pompeii, and there's all this pornographic art on all the homes. You realize, well, they were having fun! They probably said, 'Ah, the volcano's smoking, but not today. Let's have some more drinks.' Then, one day, 'Holy - ! Too late.'

"Here we are, modern Pompeii. Our earthquake is going to happen and we live in denial. We figure out how to live here, and it's great until that guy pulls up in the car and goes 'Bang! Lights out.' It happens all the time here. That's what the movie is really all about.''

While L.A. satire abounds in Escape, Carpenter and company also take potshots at larger cultural trends that they find alarming. Plissken, who was set up in the first movie as the ultimate authority-hating nihilist, becomes a spokesman - albeit a coarsely grunting one - for both Russell's libertarian and Carpenter's leftist paranoid political views.

"It's not a message movie, but it is based in a political background,'' Russell said. "In writing this movie, neither one of us felt apologetic about having fun setting up this scenario, which a lot of people are going to take the way they want to, which is what they should do with the movie - although a lot are going to take it wrong, from my point of view.''

"I think it all boils down to the rules issue,'' said Carpenter, who has put political spins on sci-fi premises before in They Live and The Thing, one of five pictures he's made starring Russell. "It seems to me that we're too willing now to give up as much freedom as possible, immediately, to have some sort of order and risk-free living.

"I just don't understand that,'' Carpenter added. "That's what Snake represents. He's the guy who says, 'Don't tell me what to do.' ''

Russell expresses the Plissken point of view much more passionately than the reticent Snake ever does.

"Where in the Constitution does it talk about a safety net?'' Russell queried between puffs on a cigarette he lit without asking anyone's permission. "Who is the Minister of Fun in this country? It's just all about living longer and living safer. Yes, there's a value to that, I certainly understand that. But there's also a greater value to me of getting something out of life. At least, make it my choice; that's what I thought this country was all about.''

These days, Russell is at least getting more value out of one aspect of life. After years as a journeyman actor, he has recently become a highly paid action movie lead. The box-office success of Tombstone, Stargate and Executive Decision upped his asking price to $10 million for Escape From L.A. and his next release, Breakdown. He's reportedly getting paid $15 million for his next sci-fi action outing, Soldier.

"I think he's worth the $10 million that we paid Kurt,'' said Hill, who cut her teeth producing Carpenter's low-budget moneymakers Halloween, The Fog and the $7 million Escape From New York (the sequel's pricetag pushed $50 million). "He's a writer, he's a producer, he brought a lot to the table. And he is Snake Plissken; we couldn't make this movie without him. And he has the ability to open a picture in the marketplace now.''

"Finally, all these years of being a solid pro have paid off for Kurt,'' echoed Carpenter. "That happens rarely in this business, and when that opportunity does come, you must take it. We were all starving and struggling at one time, and so many people never have the chance to experience what's happening to Kurt now.''

Which should indicate to Carpenter that good things can happen. Even, maybe, in L.A.

"You see the struggles we have getting along,'' Carpenter said. "And we live in a desert, on a precipice, on the edge; and we're going to get hammered one day by a big quake.

"But I suppose you could take this story and put it anyplace. There are disasters everywhere and the Earth is getting more and more overpopulated. L.A. is just what life is now. I'm a short-term pessimist but, I think, a long-term optimist. With a little luck, humanity may survive. I'm not sure, I'm concerned for us. But truly, most people are good in their hearts and they want things to work.''