Escape From L.A. — Collector’s Edition

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Action;
$34.93 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for violence and some language.
Stars Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi, Stacy Keach, Cliff Robertson, Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, Bruce Campbell, Valeria Golino, Georges Corraface, Michelle Forbes, A.J. Langer, Peter Jason.

Nowadays, a character such as Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken would be tagged for franchise potential and, if his first outing shows a modicum of success, thrust into a series of sequels (e.g. John Wick). But fans of 1981’s Escape From New York had to wait 15 years before director John Carpenter would bring the character back to the big screen.

Such a gap between sequels might not seem like such a big deal anymore, with studios frequently greenlighting follow-ups to popular movies from 20 to 30 years ago, or longer (case in point, the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick getting made 34 years after the original).

Carpenter and Russell certainly didn’t end their creative partnership following Escape From New York, collaborating on other cult classics such as 1982’s The Thing and 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China (both receiving their own Scream Factory special-edition Blu-rays).

The delay in getting a Plissken sequel off the ground wasn’t for lack of trying. Russell reportedly wanted to play the character again, and a script had been in development since the mid 1980s. The project suffered additional setbacks after the original film’s distributor went bankrupt and rights to the sequel bounced around, eventually ending up with Paramount. (Distribution rights for the original film ended up with MGM, making a DVD bundle of the two films problematic —though perhaps Shout! Factory can remedy that now that it has been able to release both films on separate Blu-rays).

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The film finally hit theaters in 1996, just a year before the “futuristic” setting of the original film, in which Snake had to rescue the U.S. president from the island of Manhattan, which had been turned into a lawless maximum security prison.

The sequel takes the obvious approach to a follow-up to a movie called Escape From New York, and transfers the setting to Los Angeles. Aside from that, the film is essentially a beat-for-beat remake of the first film, with a few details mixed around for good measure. Most of the new characters Plissken meets correspond to characters from the first movie, from the head of the police force that recruits him for an impossible mission, to the leader of the gangs on the prison island where he’s sent.

In the years since Snake’s first escape, a massive earthquake strikes California in the year 2000, causing the greater Los Angeles area to break off from the mainland. A presidential candidate (Cliff Robertson) who happened to predict the disaster is subsequently swept into office, and he oversees a series of Constitutional amendments, including one giving him a lifetime term. He outlaws all religions but Christianity, and anyone who violates the new U.S. moral code is deported to the island of Los Angeles, which is monitored by a national police force.

In 2013, however, the president’s daughter (A.J. Langer) falls in love with a revolutionary, steals a top-secret weapons control system, and exiles herself to the island. When the rescue team fails to find her, the president recruits Plissken, who has experience with this sort of thing (even eliciting a comment from Snake about how familiar it all is).

Plissken has a day to infiltrate the island and recover the weapons system, which is apparently America’s only defense against an imminent invasion from the rest of the world the president has managed to tick off. The invasion will be led by Che Guevara wannabe Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), who now possesses the weapon thanks to the First Daughter, and plans to use it against the U.S.

So, as with New York, Snake must navigate a series of unsavory characters and dangerous situations to recover the items of national importance and return to the authorities for the cure to the deadly ailment they secretly gave him to motivate him to go on the mission.

Where Escape From New York mostly treats its setting as a generic burned-out urban sprawl, Escape From L.A. puts more emphasis on re-creating the dystopian version of specific recognizable Los Angeles landmarks, and revels in extrapolating a lawless world from a number of L.A. tropes, from a gang of mutant plastic surgeon victims led by a doctor (Bruce Campbell) trying to keep them fresh, to the aging surfer (Peter Fonda) who helps Snake get around town by riding the waves.

And in one of the film’s best gags, a character implies that Disney has somehow gone bankrupt by 2013. In the real timeline, that would have been a year after they bought Lucasfilm.

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Escape from L.A. plays a bit like what Carpenter would have done with the first movie if he had an actual budget to work with. Where the first film felt gritty and was quite effective in making the most out of its limited resources, the sequel seems a bit too polished. The film makes extensive use of computer animation for its visual effects, but they haven’t aged well, looking more like video game graphics than anything that exists in the real world.

Still, its fun to get a sense of the future version of L.A. that Carpenter was going for. The Blu-ray features a new 4K scan of the original negative that makes it easy to enjoy the film’s production design, even if it doesn’t do many favors for the visual effects.

Where the previous Paramount Blu-ray of the film offered no bonus materials, the new single-disc Scream Factory edition presents more than an hour’s worth of newly recorded interviews with some of the cast and filmmakers. They are presented as six separate videos, one for each subject.

Among the actors showcased here are Stacy Keach, who plays the police commander, and Peter Jason, who plays another police official, in addition to Campbell and Corraface. The behind-the-scenes guys include special effects artist Jim McPherson and visual effects artist David Jones. The discussions don’t always stick to Escape From L.A. as the topic and hand and at times veer into the subjects’ careers in general.

Rounding out the package are the trailer, TV spots and a still gallery. While a better offering than the original Blu-ray, it’s a far cry from the two-disc Escape From New York collection that included several audio commentaries and deleted scenes in addition to behind-the-scenes interviews.

Carpenter and Russell reportedly had additional sequels planned, but the underwhelming critical and box office response to Escape From L.A. put an end to that. One potential sequel supposedly ended up being turned into Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.

1980s Miniseries ‘Key to Rebecca’ on DVD Feb. 12

CBS Home Entertainment and Paramount Home Media Distribution will release the TV movie The Key to Rebecca on DVD on Feb. 12, 2019.

Based on the bestselling novel by Ken Follett, the three-hour adaptation stars Cliff Robertson in the story of a British major determined to capture an elusive German spy during World War II. It originally aired in two installments in 1985.

Underworld U.S.A.

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Cliff Robertson, Dolores Dorn, Beatrice Kay. 

I wish all the procrastinators who hold up movie lines over an eight-inch seating differential when making their picks on box office seating charts could find a way to work as fast as the late Samuel Fuller used to when he made his story points. For those not already attuned to the late writer-director’s specialized style, it’s perhaps instructional to watch the Martin Scorsese intro before Twilight Time’s crisp new Blu-ray of main event Underworld U.S.A. — the same brief featurette first seen on the old standard DVD Sony box set devoted to the filmmaker’s output at Columbia Pictures over an extended period. One can speculate on what the young Scorsese took from Fuller when learning his craft in the Eisenhower-and-Kennedy-era 42nd Street movie houses that often showed them. Bam, bam, BAM! — here was Fuller obviating the need to shoot three additional scenes by substituting a five-second transitional insert and some blistering editing.

In the annals of Pure Cinema, Fuller’s movies are as naturally clear as a swig from the old Coors Beer waterfall whose logo a onetime girlfriend gave me as a gift silkscreen made in her college art class. And yet, maybe there was a price to be paid for all this purity because only occasionally do I get any sustained emotional kick from them — and this despite my significant affection for (to name three) Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and (here’s one that did “get” to me the last time I saw it) the late-career White Dog, which was shamefully shafted by a litany of myopics for being racist when it was anything but. Though a lesser achievement than any of these, Underworld is one of Fuller’s better-to-best movies. Filmed, like The Crimson Kimono, for Columbia when he no longer benefited from the more elaborate budgets that Darryl Zanuck had given him at Fox, it almost always obscures the suspicion that it must have been filmed on the cheap, what with its minimal sets and capable actors who weren’t “names.”

There was never a time when I was able to conjure up too much excitement for Cliff Robertson as a movie lead, though he has his moments here as a not overly bright seeker of revenge against his father’s brutal killers; the actor does the same thing with his mouth that he did in his Oscar-winning performance in Charly to convey someone who’s not too sure of himself. And like the rest of the cast — including love interest (if that’s the term) Dolores Dorn, who’s more blonde/ethereal here than you’d expect an emotionally battered Fuller moll to be — the actors are often photographed dramatically. Hal Mohr, whose career lasted well over a half-century, was cinematographer, and I’m struck by the huge percentage of his credits that were (as here) in black-and-white — even though the color work he did was almost always standout magnificent: the Claude Rains Phantom of the Opera (Oscared), its Susanna Foster follow-up The Climax and, matter of fact, King of Jazz.

The Robertson character is shaped as a teenager by witnessing, just feet away, his father’s brutal beating death in an alley, and maybe it could be worse: At least he doesn’t have to put up with Laura Ingraham ridicule on top of it. This said, the experience definitely warps him, not that any of the thugs involved change their ways over the years to end up being unjustly bumped off in subsequent reels. Some of these dispatchings are pretty nasty for the day in their methodology, with Fuller and Mohr doing a lot to suggest the pain quotient that some of these boys (now mob kingpins with silver hair) must be experiencing. I did note, however, that the purposeful killing of a young child by a young mob henchman doesn’t carry the all-out punch of a not dissimilar scene in Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story, which was filmed six years earlier. Truth to tell — and going back even to when I was a kid — I prefer the best of Karlson, who had previously directed Fuller’s script for the very good Scandal Sheet, to the best of Fuller. In fairness, however, Karlson’s filmography is littered a bit with what feel like impersonal “assignments,” whereas Fuller was never less than his own man 100% of the time.

As previously hinted, Dorn may be too beautiful as one whose sorry life experiences could turn a lot of people into blues singers, yet she gives more than expected as one whose head is screwed on fairly well for one who’s survived the squalor she’s seen and even been a part of first-hand. The movie’s anchor is Robertson’s been-around surrogate mother, who collects dolls as perhaps an antidote to the seaminess that’s been a part of her life for even longer and chides Robertson for being a clod for not treating Dorn any better. The role is familiar, if not quite a cliché, but Beatrice Kay is so right here that I can’t figure out why she didn’t get or take more big-screen work. She could have cornered the market on the ’60s equivalent of Jacki Weaver roles for a decade or more.

The movie loses a little steam for me after the first hour (of 98 minutes) once the table is set for where it’s inevitably going, but there is definitely pleasure here in watching Fuller deal with the no-frills basics. Columbia Pictures messed around with some really lousy color processes at this time — even John Ford had to do Two Rode Together in dribbly “Eastman Color by Pathe” after he’d either pushed for or lucked into VistaVision/Technicolor at Warners with The Searchers — but the black-and-white Columbia releases from the ’50s and ’60s always look pretty marvelous, even in DVD. This Blu-ray is no exception, and for such a clean-cut actor, we see Robertson sweating a lot in high-def, which helps by toughening up his performance.

Mike’s Picks: ‘King of Jazz’ and ‘Underworld U.S.A.’