Escape from L.A. (1996) – Directed by John Carpenter – Starring Kurt Russell, Stacy Keach, Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Georges Corraface, Cliff Robertson, Valeria Golina, Pam Grier, Michelle Forbes, Bruce Campbell, A.J. Langer, Leland Orser, Robert Carradine, and Breckin Meyer.
I think it’s a cinematic crime we don’t have at least 8 Snake Plissken movies.
That’s not to say ESCAPE FROM L.A. is perfect, because it’s anything but perfect (or close to perfect, or close to close to perfect), but there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had from watching Kurt Russell walk around a dystopian Los Angeles shooting things and grunting threatening pronouncements.
In the context of dystopian films, ESCAPE FROM LA has the visual misfortunate to have been created in the 1990s, thus allowing it neither the coolness factor of being made in the ’70s nor the benefits of being a contemporary film. The result is an odd look; where the original ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK has that late ’70s sci-fi vibe to it, and a movie like Doomsday or 28 Days Later can pull off a more realistic look, L.A. just feels phony. Where the first film made me feel like Snake was being dropped into a real place, this time around it feels like Snake has walked onto a movie set.
The great thing about most of John Carpenter’s ’70s/early ’80s work is that his worlds and characters always felt real. Whether that was a product of the time or Carpenter being forced to get creative with his budget, I believed in those places. In L.A., the budget isn’t a problem but the result is disappointing, as if the extra money went for things that aren’t important: a better car for the bad guy to drive around in, nicer clothes for Snake to wear, and more names in the cast.
I get that it’s cool to see Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, and Bruce Campbell in throwaway roles, but none of them really add anything of import to the film.
It’s been a long time since New York and Snake (Russell) conveniently gets captured just when the government needs him again. The President’s daughter (A.J. Langer) has been seduced by rebel leader Cuervo Jones (Georges Carraface) into giving him the control device for a secret government, and they want to send Snake in to get the control device. The President (Cliff Robertson) is super right-wing and doesn’t give a crap about his daughter. Snake doesn’t want to do it, of course, because he’s a grumpy bad-ass (still wearing his Zubaz pants), but they drug him and tell him he’s got 24 hours to get the antidote from them or he’ll die.
Because we can’t have a movie without Snake accepting, Snake takes a one-person submersible into L.A., and then has a series of dystopian vignettes on his way to get the control device.
None of the scenes are anything spectacular, and the fun in watching them comes as much from going, “Oh, look, Steve Buscemi,” “Hey, what’s up, Uncle Ben? Does May know your daughter was on My So Called Life?,” “Is that Bruce Campbell under all those prosthetics?,” and “Oh, look, that woman from Big Top Pee Wee-slash-Hot Shots-slash-Rain Man!” as it does from anything that happens. As I mentioned, it doesn’t feel like Snake is actually walking across L.A. but from Soundstage 4 to Soundstage 5.
Truthfully, few of the actors here (as fine as they are) really hit the right vibe for a movie like ESCAPE FROM L.A. Luckily, Kurt Russell does, and it’s Russell’s total commitment to playing Snake that makes L.A. an enjoyable watch.
Enjoyable but forgettable. There’s nothing here that sticks with me. I wish it were better. I wish there were more Plissken movies so I could say, “ESCAPE FROM L.A. is enjoyable but forgettable, and given the existence of 7 other Plissken movies, I don’t know why I’d choose to watch this one, again. But there aren’t, so I’ll probably watch this film a bunch more.
Heck, what I really want in lieu of more films would be to spend the next year writing 7 Plissken novels.
Addendum: I’ve read and re-read this review a few times now and while I’m not very happy with it, I really don’t know what to do with it. As I like to say, I write reactions more than reviews, so what I end up talking about here at the Anxiety is whatever a film creates in me as a reaction, and every so often you get a film like ESCAPE FROM L.A. that’s biggest reaction is little more than a collective shrug.
There are much better John Carpenter movies. There are much better Kurt Russell movies. There are much better Steve Buscemi movies, Peter Fonda movies, Pam Grier movies, Cliff Robertson, Valeria Golina, Bruce Campbell, Robert Carradine, and Breckin Meyer movies. There are much better dystopian movies.
Ghost Rider (2007; Extended Cut) – Directed by Mark Steven Johnson – Starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Wes Bentley, Sam Elliott, Donal Logue, Brett Cullen, and Peter Fonda.
Wow, GHOST RIDER is a piece of sh*t.
It shouldn’t be. Somehow, the filmmakers managed to get both Peter Fonda and Sam Elliott to show up and chew scenery and hoodwinked $110 million out of Columbia Pictures (or Sony). The visual effects are actually pretty decent and the idea is solid enough, it’s just …
It’s like this. Watching GHOST RIDER, I have the sense that everyone involved decided to make a relatively serious film peppered with a few moments of levity to keep the movie from being unrelentingly grim, but then the morning of the first day of shooting, Nic Cage rolled in after a three week Elvis-inspired bender of friend peanut butter and banana sandwiches and decided to do his own thing.
The elements of a decent movie exist here, but much like director Mark Steven Johnson’s other superhero film, Daredevil, the final product simply never comes together.
The big problem with GHOST RIDER is the two leads: Nic Cage and Eva Mendes. Cage is so unfocused here it’s like he’s playing a different character in nearly every scene. He’s clearly going for an Elvis vibe here, but in some scenes he lays on the Tennessee accent like slow-cooked barbecue sauce and in others it’s barely there. Cage has delivered some wretched performances in some wretched movies but I tend to agree more with Roger Ebert’s defense of his acting abilities than Sean Penn’s famous dismissal of Cage that, he’s “no longer an actor.” That said, Cage is awful here. In his defense of his acting, Ebert says that Cage “always seems so earnest. However improbable his character, he never winks at the audience. He is committed to the character with every atom and plays him as if he were him.”
That is not the performance Cage gives in GHOST RIDER. In an unintended bit of meta-ness, Roxanne (Eva Mendes) even calls him on his inconsistency. After she visits his apartment and kisses Johnny Blaze, he cuts it short. She wants to know what his deal is – he pulls a crazy traffic stunt to get her to agree to dinner, then doesn’t show for it. He keeps romantic pictures of her from their time as teenagers, but then he pushes her away. Adamant that she wants an answer, Blaze gives her the truth – he’s the Devil’s Bounty Hunter.
And, of course, Roxanne doesn’t believe it.
Why should she? Cage and Johnson’s conception of Johnny Blaze is all over the place. Grimly serious one scene, goofy the next … the film really does give off a vibe that Cage was making this whole performance up as he went along.
Mendes is no better. Her performance is simply awful and the part she’s asked to play is insipid. When she gets drunk at dinner because Johnny never shows up, she asks the waiter, “Do you think I’m pretty?” and he shrugs as if to say, “Not really.” On the one hand, it’s Eva Mendes, but the waiter has been dealing with her all night and has clearly decided, “Not worth it.” Her character suffers from the same inconsistency as Blaze, but it’s made all the worse because she’s a professional reporter who acts like she’s still a silly 14-year old girl.
That’s why this film is so disappointing. When it concentrates on the Old West Ghost Rider, Carter Slade and his contemporary persona, the Caretaker (Sam Elliott), I kinda dig this film, but every time Cage or Mendes comes on screen the whole production suffers.
Watching the film here in 2012 I was honestly surprised that the film was released in 2007 because it feels like a much earlier superhero film. In my head, GHOST RIDER was a contemporary of Blade (1998), X-Men (2000), and Spider-Man (2002), not X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and Spider-Man 3 (2007). There’s a lack of comfort with superhero films here, as Johnson feels the need to step
-by-step us through the narrative. We get a long scene depicting a young Johnny Blaze signing his contract with Mephisto (Fonda), then a long scene introducing the adult Blaze, then a long scene re-establishing the Blaze/Roxanne relationship and before you know it (I’m kidding – you’ll likely feel every single second of it), 45 minutes have gone before we get to Ghost Rider showing up in his own film.
RIDER is the kind of film that gives you a flashback to a scene that happened 15 minutes ago, and when films do that, you can pretty much guarantee they’re doing it because they think their audience is stupid.
Not wanting to use Mephisto as the main antagonist, the film brings in Blackheart (Wes Bentley) and some fallen angels, and very little of any of this works.
Unlike Catwoman, which is a complete disaster from start-to-finish, GHOST RIDER has some good moments, but all these moments really do is to reinforce how bad the rest of the film is in contrast. I like Sam Elliott and Peter Fonda well enough, and I honestly would have preferred to see GHOST RIDER done as a Western instead of a contemporary superhero piece. As it is, this film just does not work for me.
The Cannonball Run (1981) – Directed by Hal Needham – Starring Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dom DeLuise, Farah Fawcett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., George Furth, Adrienne Barbeau, Jackie Chan, Jack Elam, Jamie Farr, Terry Bradshaw, Mel Tillis, Bert Convy, Peter Fonda, Rick Aviles, Tara Buckman, Michael Hui, Joe Klecko, and one sweet ass black Lamborghini Countach.
There was no movie my brother and I rented more from the local video store when we were kids than THE CANNONBALL RUN. If the Music Forum (in hindsight, a really dumb name for a video rental store) didn’t have anything we wanted, they always had CANNONBALL waiting for us. (Or Clue. Or Cannonball Run II.) I probably haven’t seen it in over 20 years, and if you’ve been following along on Facebook, you know it’s taken this stupid film almost two months to get to me, which officially makes it the second-longest wait in the history of my Netflix queue. (Inglorious Basterds took four months.) Two months is a long time to wait for anything (except for a baby – then it’s wicked short), so I was a bit nervous to drop CANNONBALL in the DVD player and see if it held up.
It holds up.
In fact, CANNONBALL is the rare childhood joy that has actually increased its enjoyment with my age, now that I actually know who these people are. As a kid, almost everyone in this movie was, “______ from CANNONBALL RUN,” so when I watched the film then they were just people in a movie. I had no idea who Dean Martin or Jackie Chan or Jack Elam or Adrienne Barbeau were, but they became “Funny Drunk Priest,” “Funny Kung-Fu Driver,” “Crazy-Eyed Doctor,” and “Woman in Countach.”
The Countach was as much a star as any of the actors. Still Lambo’s most famous car, the Countach manages to be both ridiculous and sublime, futuristic and dated, cutting edge and classic. It’s everything that Batmobile should be (and maybe could be? Make it happen, Nolan.), even if Bats would have to do something about the doors.
CANNONBALL opens with Barbeau’s black Countach (this one, in fact) toying with a cop in a Firebird through desert highways as Ray Stevens’ title track plays over the top and the credits roll. The moment that sealed the chase scene for me was when the cop car whizzed by some open road and then then the Countach pulled out AND WENT AFTER IT.
How was a ten-year old kid not going to love that?
More than anything else, CANNONBALL RUN probably introduced to me my love of cars, chase movies, Dean Martin, and boobs.
Thank you, Hal Needham and Brock Yates. Thank you.
CANNONBALL RUN is, of course, almost completely and utterly devoid of any sense of political correctness but what it is, what it does beautifully, is present a live-action comedy cartoon for adults who know that, yes, pretending to be doctors and kidnapping Farrah Fawcett is wrong. So is drinking and driving, no matter how cool Terry Bradshaw, Mel Tillis, Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. make it look. Telling a cop that someone is a sex offender? Not right. Unzipping your top to try and get out of a speeding ticket? Not only is it wrong, it doesn’t work. (Eat me, Ohio. I despise you more with every passing day.)
I’m not going to turn CANNONBALL RUN into some kind of symbol for Comedy’s Last Stand Against the Takes Everything Too Seriously Crowd, because there are lines that can’t and shouldn’t be crossed, but comedy allows us to play with ideas in a pretend safety world where Burt Reynolds can drink a beer as he flies a plane, then lands the plane in the middle of a downtown street so Dom can buy more beer, and then takes off as people dodge out of the way.
We all know this is wrong, yes? It’s still cool. Even as a kid, I recognized that this was probably not something to be attempted. You know how I knew this? Because kids aren’t stupid, and we don’t need to sanitize everything in society just because there’s exceptions to that rule.
When Bradshaw and Tillis are driving their NASCAR-inspired Donnie Allison Hawaiian Tropic car away from the cops (another no-no) and ditch it in a pool as people scatter, you don’t have to worry about the consequences of people getting hurt. There’s no moment of, “OH MY GOD, DID TERRY BRADSHAW JUST KILL A BABY?!?!?!?” because this is a car race comedy and so your only real question is, “What does this do to the car?”
As Tillis says a few scenes later: “The only thing hiding it in the pool did was make it look pretty.”
The plot in CANNONBALL RUN is supremely minimal. There’s a cross country race. People drive across country. Hilarity ensues. Someone wins. (The film doesn’t even follow through on the correct rules about who should win. The Cannonball is a time trial and yet, at the end, everyone has forgot this and decides that whomever punches their ticket first wins.) The film simply tacks funny bit after funny bit as the race progresses westward.
Burt Reynolds is the star and this is Burt Reynolds semi-parodying Burt Reynolds. (The amount of self-parody that accompanies Burt’s career is mind-boggling.) He plays a guy who wants to win the race, who decrees to Farrah Fawcett in the back of an ambulance how he decides to go after whatever he wants the moment he wants it (yet doesn’t, as you would expect, immediately try to get Farrah nekkid), and yet is also so laid back that you half-expect J.J. McClure to turn back into Burt and wander off the set in pursuit of that hot new extra standing by the hot dog cart.
McClure and his partner Victor Prinsi (DeLuise) are pretending to be ambulance drivers and Jack Elam plays a wacked out proctologist they’re using as a cover. Needing a female patient to play on the sympathies of any cop should they somehow manage to get pulled over, they kidnap Pamela Glover (Fawcett), who Reynolds renames “Beauty” for the length of the picture, and then drug her so she’s all loopy for the cops that do, in fact, pull them over.
Glover is the ultimate nature-loving dreamer type, who’s also a photographer for some reason that has no pay-off in the movie. “I love trees,” she tells everyone in a voice that is as sweet and innocent as it is naive and dumb. She’s not so dumb that she thinks being kidnapped is awesome, however.
The film mitigates the kidnapping in several ways besides the fact that this is a ridiculous comedy. For starters, it creates an obvious attraction between Glover and McClure the night before, so when Glover is pulled into the ambulance and Prinsi takes off before the film’s do-goody, nerdy bad guy Arthur J. Foyt (Furth) can jump in the back she’s not exactly among strangers or trying to escape.
The most important and telling way that it stays clear of any possible bad vibe is that McClure is completely gentlemanly towards Beauty (besides renaming her, that is) the entire trip. There’s the requisite scene where Fawcett strips down to bare legs and light shirt, but McClure doesn’t put the moves on her despite them being alone in the back and despite his “I go after what I want” speech. Instead, he simply tells her about his dad, who worked in the coal mines and died two days before retirement. You think it’s going to be a line, but if it is, it’s a line with a long-term pay-off that happens after the final credits roll. McClure’s primary interest is in winning the race – they need a female patient (so they’ve decided), and Glover was in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time.
She admits to him during this scene that she was nervous. “What did you think was going to happen?” McClure asks. “Gang rape,” she answers sheepishly. “Gang rape?” he asks incredulously. “We’re racers, not rapists.”
Comedy that it is, the film wants you to know it knows they’re aware of how this whole kidnap-a-woman-into-an-ambulance thing can be read and they don’t want to risk turning you against Reynolds by having him take advantage of her.
To make this point one last time, there’s a scene where Jackie Chan is driving his car and pops a porno into the car’s VCR. The porno of choice is Marilyn Chambers’ Behind the Green Door, which has Chambers being kidnapped and then forced to perform sex acts in front of a live audience. There’s a voice-over narration on the tape that explains this, a not-so-subtle message to the audience that this is not happening with Farrah Fawcett.
CANNONBALL RUN isn’t particularly a laugh riot from start to finish, but it is constantly amusing and it does contain several very funny scenes, typically involving the feud between Raynolds/DeLuise and Martin/Davis, Jr. Martin and Davis pretend to be priests (Blake and Fenderbaum, respectively) and drive a Ferrari 308 GTS. Often, Dean is drunk because Dean being drunk is funny.
Their best scene together is a verbal throwdown between Dean and Burt where they trade knowing but uncomfortable insults at each other, daring the other one to take a step closer to the Insult That Goes Too Far. Blake is angry for McClure lying to the cops about them being sex offenders, and McClure shoots back that he was just getting even for what Blake and “the chocolate monk did back in Ohio.” (They let the air out the ambulance’s tires.) Fenderbaum is offended, but Blake pretends to come to McClure’s aid just so he can top the insult. “He can say that,” he assures Fenderbaum, “because he’s riding around with the Goodyear blimp.” It’s Prinsi’s turn to be offended, but McClure assures him that Blake can say that because, well, because he’s got a big nose. They never get around to making fun of Reynold’s for being a Southerner, but that’s because they’ve got to go beat up Peter Fonda and his biker gang friends.
By the time Prinsi gives up his sure shot at winning to save a dog from drowning, everyone is ready to celebrate and hang out and get drunk together.
And why not? As Stevens sings in the title track, “it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” Lookee there. A message in a silly all-star car chase movie. They practically slipped it right past you.