Heart of darkness

ESCAPE FROM LA John Carpenter (15)": nake Plissken's back. He's mean. He's ultra-ornery. And he wants to take you to the Dark Ages. Adam Mars-Jones on John Carpenter's `Escape' sequel
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The Independent Culture
There are sequels and sequels. Some are sublime (Godfather II) and most are wretched (The Fly II or, come to that, Godfather III). Escape From LA, John Carpenter's not particularly prompt follow-up to 1981's Escape From New York, is almost exactly halfway between the categories. For most of the time it's an uneasy mixture of action picture and ramshackle satire, furiously inventive and not very good, until at the end it suddenly enters new territory. It's not territory you'd associate with this director - more John Milius than John Carpenter - but it's a fascinating aberration coming from someone whose first films were so confident (Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween), and who's lost his way so completely since then.

The plot outline is a photocopy of the earlier film's. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), notorious criminal but deep-down good guy, is dispatched to rescue the president's daughter in a futuristic America gone feral. The literal time-bomb attached to the hero in the first film has been replaced by a designer virus, but the intention is the same: to provide an over-arching suspense structure for a story that tends to be episodic.

Kurt Russell is unusually intensely involved in the project - he co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay with Carpenter and Debra Hill. The whole idea of a sequel set in a Los Angeles turned into an island prison after seismic cataclysm and social meltdown was his, inspired by the 1994 earthquake. It turns out that Russell hung on to his Plissken outfit from the first film, which he wears at the beginning of the sequel, eliciting the comment, "So retro". He wants you to know that he doesn't hoard a lot of costumes, but this one was special. He kept this trophy from the infancy of his stardom the way some people keep their baby shoes - though, if it were baby shoes, he wouldn't be quite so delighted that they still fit.

But even if the star has bonded emotionally with the character's clothes, Snake Plissken is some way off being a true Hollywood icon. The attempts at playing persona games in the film are distinctly uneasy. When people comment, "I thought you'd be taller", on meeting him, we may find ourselves thinking that other actors could indeed play the part. Harrison Ford would have made him fully human, Schwarzenegger fully inhuman. Russell gives the character a laconic growl that is bound to recall Eastwood, and may prompt the reflection that Eastwood has moved on, and only partly because he had to.

For his new mission, Plissken is issued with a new wardrobe. It isn't that he chooses to wear rubber T-shirts and leather greatcoats, you understand, though he is filmed on his first appearance in the gear from the floorboard level of fetishistic approbation. The costume is functional, naturally, being flame retardant and thermally masking. "He's wearing Stealth," someone comments at one point, which would be a good name for a high-tech sportswear collection, if you've got one in the works. Plissken may not have chosen the outfit, but when someone steals the coat you know damn well he'll get it back sooner or later. He's ultra-ornery, which bears the same relationship to real ornery as ultrasuede bears to suede. He's mean by numbers. When people call him Plissken, he says, "Call me Snake", but is he polite when people do? No he's not. Then he says, "Call me Plissken". Talk about Mr Grumpy. Got up the wrong side of the apocalypse this morning.

In 2013 America is divided between a religious regime based in the new capital of Lynchburg, Virginia (real life HQ of Jerry Falwell's Liberty Baptist College) and the outcast underworld of LA Island, populated by moral criminals whose exile is permanent. The president's daughter Utopia is indoctrinated by terrorists who gain access to her Virtual Reality headset - a resonant, under-developed idea, this, of an invisible kidnap, a Patty Hearst who doesn't leave home until she's been neurally recruited. Then Utopia steals the control system of a new weapon, a sort of neutron bomb in reverse, which spares the people but destroys all technology with an electromagnetic pulse. Her recruiter can now take out the world selectively - targeting a taxi in Buenos Aires if he pleases - or in toto.

Most of the satire along the way is directed at the prison island society, where life goes on pretty much as usual, some people not noticing that the world has ended. A crazed surfer played by Peter Fonda waits for tidal waves set off by seismic after-shocks. The Surgeon General of Beverly Hills continues to perform operations, though this is plastic surgery on the level of damage limitation at best, and he is running out of halfway decent transplant material. It's only 10 minutes before the end of the film - the last reel, back when films were on reels - that the focus shifts, and the government's principles are spelt out. No red meat. And no smoking. (Try to forget that a regime based in Virginia, however totalitarian, would be crazy to try such a move.) The anti-government feeling that has exploded in America over the past 10 years, from homesteaders to terrorists, suddenly takes over the movie. Snake Plissken has the chance to press a button, destroy technology and bring back the Dark Ages of every man for himself.

When the arch-villain pulled the plug on Lynchburg a little earlier, Carpenter provided no images of what was happening, but still presented it as a disaster and a crime. Now the same thing on a global scale can seem like a solution. Never mind that, on the basis of their futuristic LA, which in theory has zero infrastructure, the film-makers can't begin to imagine a world without technology. In LA, bullets are freely fired and Harleys ridden (no Japanese bikes seem to have survived the earthquake). This is a Dark Age only in the sense that Angelenos have been cured of their love of bright clothing.

In a world gone dark by his hand, Snake Plissken finds a packet of cigarettes and lights up, saying, "Welcome to the human race." The entire American experiment is condensed into the freedom to inhale tobacco. Bearing in mind that this moment could have represented the single biggest coup in the history of product placement, it must count as a sign of sincerity that the brand of the cigarette is not a real one. Were there meetings with Joe Camel's people, with the Marlboro cowboy? What Snake smokes is not a Lark, not a Winston. Only a more mischievous manipulator of images would have him lighting up a girlie menthol, a Virginia Slim. Snake Plissken strikes a match and draws into his lungs the acrid fumes of an American Spirit. Or did John Carpenter stake a legal claim to that brand name before he even made the movie?

n On general release from tomorrow