The high spot is the character sent into that behavioural sink to reclaim him, Kurt Russell's deathless Snake Plissken, the most unredeemable and unshaven anti-hero ever to sport a distressed leather jacket and talk in a homicidal whisper. How could one not fall at least slightly in love with a film which ends with Plissken ("Call me Snake") condemning the human race to global thermonuclear war just because he's in a great big sulk at the way he's been treated for the last 90 minutes?
But a decade and a half have passed, the 1997 in which Escape from New York was set is now mere months away, global thermonuclear war is off the agenda for the time being and that film's director is now for some unaccountable reason in a position to have his name surgically grafted into the title of its long-deferred sequel, John Carpenter's Escape from LA (15). Actually, "sequel" is not quite the mot juste. The new film doesn't simply return to the plot and main character of the original: it replays it with a minuteness that borders on the obsessive-compulsive. A few decorative details have changed, and there's some moderately diverting new technology involving holograms, but in every other respect the two movies are identical twins, right down - of course, you have to be very sad indeed to notice this - to the crane-shot up a perimeter wall with which the film proper begins.
The result isn't wholly devoid of amusement, but for anyone who has grown old drinking beer and nodding happily along to the first film it's deeply disappointing. New York felt frisky and reckless, compensating for its relatively paltry budget with a plethora of conceits and wild sights, like Carpenter's first (and, one might argue in glum moments, still his best) feature, Dark Star. LA has so few new treats that for the most part it leaves you brooding on the loss of inspiration that can plague those who burned most brightly in youth. Even the theme music, once deliberate and quasi-martial, has been souped up and ruined with a stupid rock beat.
Anyway, the new wrinkles run along these lines. In the year 2000, an earthquake tears Los Angeles away from the mainland, forming an island which becomes a maximum security centre for undesirables. (New York, presumably, is full up?) A theocratic government, headed by an evangelical Christian charlatan (Cliff Robertson), has come to power and has made smoking, red meat, unapproved marriage and suchlike illegal; could there be some satirical intent here? Things go peachily until 2013, when the President's rebellious daughter Utopia hijacks a gizmo capable of sending the world back to what the film calls the Dark Ages and takes it to the rebel leader Cuervo Jones, a Che Guevara lookalike who rules LA and is rallying the Third World for an invasion of God's Own Country. Fortunately for some, Plissken ("Call me Snake"), has just been rounded up again, and is offered a deal whereby in return for going into LA and retrieving ... yes, this is where we came in.
No matter how hard he tries to prove the contrary - and Big Trouble in Little China was surely enough to dampen the enthusiasm of his most ardent followers - Carpenter hasn't completely flushed away his talent, and there are moments when the mischief is almost up to snuff. The best special effect, and best LA joke of a not particularly acute bunch, has Snake surfing a tsunami wave down Wilshire Boulevard in the company of an ageing beach bum, lugubriously played by Peter Fonda. The second-best joke, which manages a little frisson of 1950s comic-book nastiness, takes place in a grotesque clinic for plastic surgery casualties, located in the ruins of Beverly Hills. For the sake of the good old days, one tries to chuckle and find the film naughty and clever, but really it is a loser's game. For all that Kurt Russell is supernaturally unaged after 15 years, and no matter how cool he looks in his fancy new black duster and boots, Escape from LA feels like the work of old dogs who can't manage new tricks. Carpenter may be imagining the future, but he's living in the past.
The week's best hostage-to-fortune line is spoken by Demi Moore in Andrew Bergman's Striptease (15): "How did I get so popular?" Beats us, Demi, and let's not even talk about the inflated fee you trousered for taking your kit off in such a thoroughly untitillating manner. Most of the time Moore occupies centre screen, Striptease is as dead as a dead snake, and the plot need concern no one. The pleasant surprise is how much life is racing around in the sub-plots: Burt Reynolds may never have been funnier than as a lascivious Congressman ("Ah jest luhhv nekkid wimmin - character flaw") who likes to slick his body up with Vaseline and sniff laundry lint. But the man of the film is Ving Rhames, the gang boss from Pulp Fiction, playing a philosophical bouncer with a truly zinging line in dialogue. He almost makes it into a comedy worth seeing; the key word being "almost".
At a generous estimate, about one and a half minutes of Reginald Huxley's brash and futile comedy The Great White Hype (15) could honestly be described as not too bad. Those scant 90 seconds include a curiously erudite piece- to-camera by Jeff Goldblum, as a crusading documentarist, and a horrified exclamation by the film's one British character, played by John Rhys-Davies: "I'd rather be turked by a syphilitic bear." Not terribly witty, perhaps, but vocabulary-boosting. Plot: unscrupulous boxing promoter (the great Samuel L Jackson, squandered), knowing that the masses will shell out for a racial grudge match, recruits and trains a dopey white boy (Peter Berg) to challenge the reigning champ (Damon Wayans). Ron Shelton, of White Men Can't Jump and other much better sports comedies, is credited as co-writer of the screenplay. He must have taken a dive.
And so to the realms of art. You can tell that Antonia's Line (15) is art because one of its characters has visions of smirking Madonnas and corpses coming back to life to sing "My Blue Heaven", and because it's set in a remote village populated by a Schopenhauerean gloom-bag called Crooked Finger, a Catholic woman who howls at the moon, a dimwit called Loony Lips, a child prodigy, a rapist ... just like Ambridge, really. Antonia's Line is the first movie by a woman director to win an Academy Award for best foreign film, and is a lot more bearable than a summary suggests. It's pretty hard on men, but we can take it. Call me Snake.
The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (15), written and directed by Maria Maggenti, is a sweet-natured if somewhat insubstantial tale, lightly dusted with farce, of lesbian romance between two high-school girls. Randy (Laurel Holloman) is a rock-crazed underachiever and misfit who lives with a group of like-minded relatives and lovers; Evie (Nicole Parker) is from a posh black family, waxes ecstatic over the "Dies Irae" from K626 and can not only use the word "symbiotic" in a casual sentence but can define it almost correctly. With a little help from Walt Whitman singing the body electric, true Sapphic love prevails against even the nasty schoolgirls who enforce a rigid line on heterosexuality.
Farce and romance, of the hetero brand, are also key components of Guantanamera (15), a fine film by Tomas Gutierrez Alea (best known for Memories of Underdevelopment and Strawberry and Chocolate), which takes the form of a digressive road movie following two groups of travellers - a funeral party and a couple of randy truckers - along the same road in present- day Cuba. It's at best mildly charming, and the plot is never quite as interesting as its dozens of carefully spiky little details about living wearily and pragmatically on Yankee dollars in a besieged socialist economy.
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