Kurt Russell enjoyed a run of box office hits in the 90s which enabled him to get finance for a (very) late sequel to his 1980 hit Escape from New York - which had given Russell one of his favourite, if not favourite, roles: the enigmatic anti-hero Snake Plissken. It's not hard to see why Russell loved the part so - he rarely looked more bad-ass, with his eye patch, three day growth and leather pants; the swagger and one liners; the back story that incorporated all sorts of mysterious missions; the nihilistic past. And he's as good as ever in the role. If anything the years have added a bit more shade.
The film isn't much though. It's hopeless muddled, a combination of a remake of the original, a campy cartoon satirical action piece, and a platform for Russell's libertarian political views. The three things do not mesh.
It's disappointing how much it copies the original while making it worse. In many respects the structure is almost identical: instead of Lee Van Cleef there's Stacy Keach and Michelle Forbes (and Cliff Robertson, I guess); there's a maguffin and Plissken thinks he's injected with something; instead of Donald Pleasance as the macguffin holder there's AJ Holder; Steve Buscemi replaces Ernest Borgnine, Georges Corraface replaces Isaac Hayes, Valerie Golina replaces Season Hubley, Pam Grier replaces Harry Dean Stanton. Even Plissken's double cross at the end is the same.
Yet there are some key, disastrous differences. I know John Carpenter was thinking "well Howard Hawks remade Rio Bravo with El Dorado and Rio Lobo" but Hawks maintained the basic dramatic tension of the concept i.e. a siege picture with baddies outside. Escape from New York had a very clear idea - New York was a prison and a horrible nightmarish place to be. It never went in to too much detail about what the outside world was like - it was clearly tough and not super fun, but was infinitely superior to the prison; all the prisoners in New York wanted to get out. Here Los Angeles is a prison, but one where the prisoners preferred life inside to that on the outside. In Escape from LA the nightmare is modern day America - ruled by a dictatorial president who is in power for life, ruled by a religious fundamentalist regime who are also politically correct (banning smoking, red meat), outlawing muslims and leather jackets, threatened with invasion from the third world. LA is wild and wooly and dangerous but not to a good libertarian like Russell/Plissken and prisoners such as those played by Valerie Golina and Pam Grier would actually rather stay there. Which means it's not that scary, there's not the same impulse to leave, which undermines the drama.
Politically it is interesting. Plissken at the end removes power from the entire world - you don't get more libertarian than that. I'm sure patients in hospitals and people depending on refrigeration and heat to survive might feel differently but at least Russell had the guts to propagate his lunatic theories.
It's in the outlandish, campy comic book sections that I felt this movie was most successful, where it seemed to get its tone right: the underground sub Russell uses, the decaying aspects of Los Angeles (including remnants of Disneyland); Plissken having to play basketball in a court for survival; Plissken surfing a wave with Peter Fonda; the cameos from players such as Fonda, Robert Carradine (a skinhead), Bruce Campbell (fun as a plastic surgeon), Pam Grier (transsexual); the colourful production design.
Like I say the three movies don't mesh - they pull in different directions. But Carpenter completists, Russell fans and libertarians will get stuff out of it.