Tuesday, June 23, 2015

ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996), ENDGAME (1983), 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS (1982)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*


I didn't remember much from any earlier screening of ESCAPE TO L.A., the sequel to 1981's influential ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Prior to my recent re-watch of L.A., I might have agreed with the dominant critical opinion of the sequel; an opinion shared by the 1996 audiences, since L.A. bombed big-time in 1996.

However, though I don't consider either NEW YORK or L.A. to be classic adventure-films, this time round I liked L.A. a bit better. I didn't mind the fact that the sequel recapitulates many of the earlier film's popular sequences. This is standard practice with many big-budget Hollywood films, and there have been times that the sequel actually shows greater mythic resonance than the original, as I would argue with regard to both ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2.

ESCAPE TO L.A. is not anywhere as good as these two sequels. However, unlike many 1996 critics I liked the fact that L.A. is more kinetic than the rather slow-moving NEW YORK. The screenshot above captures the film's most delirious moment, when hero Snake Plissken surfs a tsumani-wave that just happens to run alongside a highway, so that Plissken can take over the car being driven by the astonished driver, a professional weasel named "Map to the Stars" Eddie (nicely played by Steve Buscemi, and a decided improvement over Ernest Borgnine. Plissken's guide in the New York flck). I also appreciated a dynamic scene in which Plissken hang-glides over the encampment of his enemy Cuervo Jones and blows the hell out of it.

The plot is largely unchanged: again a precious military device has fallen into the hands of lowlife insurgents, and the equally lowlife military poisons Plissken with a slow-killing disease so that he'll use his special skills to recover the device. Writer-director John Carpenter jacks up the social satire of the original, for now the military-industrial hegemony has cloaked itself in religious righteousness. The uncontrolled territory of Los Angeles has become a haven for anyone who resists the government-- though, contra STAR WARS, this doesn't mean that all rebels who "fight the power" are angels. In fact, Carpenter is quite clear that L.A. is full of a lot of creeps. Plissken encounters, in addition to the power-hungry Cuervo Jones, vicious gang-bangers,and a demented plastic surgeon (Bruce Campbell) who kidnaps people for their body-parts, in order to keep his disintegrating customers happy (a none too subtle jab at the subculture of Hollywood "plastic people"). Still, at least the L.A. creeps aren't hypocrites about what they do.

The conclusion virtually duplicates the ending of the 1981 film, with one exception. Like some viewers, I was a little off-put by the brutal nihilism of the first film, wherein it's implied that Plissken sets off a nuclear war just to take down the corrupt government. There's no reference to this event in L.A.-- perhaps cooler heads prevailed at the last minute?-- but the sequel allows for a little more ethical wiggle-room. This time, Snake brings about a nullification of advanced technology all across the globe. Although this will cause chaos, it does allow for a equalizing effect that conceivably could put an end to the military-industrial complex. It reminded me of a similar equalizing conclusion in Alfred Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION, written during the "nuclear panic" era in America, and also devoted to the ideal of ending the nuclear hegemony.

1983's ENDGAME is yet another post-apocalyptic film. But though visually it owes a lot to the Mad Max films, it's best seen as a combination of tropes from Wild West films-- particularly those revolving around the "gunfighter" subgenre-- and satirical SF about futuristic blood-sports, as established in cinema by films like 1965's TENTH VICTIM and 1987's THE RUNNING MAN.

The film spends its first half hour on depicting the bloody past-time of licensed killing in the reality-TV show "Endgame," but the game itself is not that important to the movie's plot. The game exists to set up a conflict between the game's two toughest players, heroic Ron Shannon (Al Cliver) and villainou Karnak (George Eastman).

However, before the two opponents manage to square off for their last battle, Shannon is drafted into a sort of futuristic "wagon-train" duty. A telepathic mutant woman named Lilith (Laura Gemser) enlists Shannon to help her people-- all mutants persecuted by the city's normal denizens-- to reach a safe haven far away. Shannon in turn persuades a small coterie of other tough guys to help his charges brave the radioactive landscape and fight off predatory nomads and much uglier mutants. For good measure, Karnak follows, pretending to join the wagon-train but secretly planning to kill his long-standing Endgame-rival.

Directed and co-written by Joe D'Amato, ENDGAME is actually a little more sophisticated than most post-apoc adventure-stories. The plight of the fugitive mutants is well handled, and although there's a very politically incorrect rape-scene, in which Lilith is attacked by one of the "uggo" mutants, the scene does manage to show courage on Lilith's part, as she restrains herself from calling out to Shannon at a critical moment, so that the other bad mutants won't detect the hero's presence. (Yes, I know this scene was primarily about showing T and A, but that doesn't entirely negate Lilith's self-sacrificing actions.) In the end, Shannon, like the similarly-named cowboy-hero "Shane," forswears any participation in the promised land he's made possible. The film ends on a freeze-frame as he and Karnak charge each other, fated to duel one another to the death. Said ending would be a good deal more potent if lead actor Cliver weren't a poor man's Clint Eastwood, whose underplayed solemnity is consistently upstaged by Eastman's bravura performance.

Strangely, one year before D'Amato did ENDGAME, he directed an aggressively bad post-apoc tale, co-written by D'Amato and George "Karnak" Eastman, though Eastman does not contribute his acting-talents to said film. The flick was known in its American release as 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS. The Italian release-name more correctly called its heroes "Freedom Fighters." Unsurprisingly, no one in the film does anything even slightly gladiatorial.

Here, in a post-apocalyptic world centered around what's supposed to be Texas, several vigilantes go around busting the heads of criminals. Their leader is a fellow bearing the Greek name "Nisus." Nisus and his men save a lissome young lady named Maida from rape, but one of Nisus' own soldiers, "Catch Dog" by name, tries to rape her himself. Nisus lets the Dog out of the group, but the team's real enemy is Maida, who functions as something of a Yoko Ono. She talks Nisus into giving up the martial life to raise crops and the rest of the so-called "Rangers" disband.

The error of Maida's ways are soon evident: soon the local post-apoc towns are menaced by nasty motorcyclists-- led by the rapacious Catch Dog-- and a new fascist army, and there are no dedicated vigilantes around to stop them. Nisus (essayed, as in ENDGAME, by emotionless Al Cliver) is killed,. However, his death inspires the remnants of the old group re-unite to kick hell out of the bad guys. Maida belatedly learns the importance of kicking ass and taking name, and manages to blow away several evildoers herself.

Whereas ENDGAME is a simple film whose broad characters are reasonably appealing, GLADIATORS is a mess, in which no character comes off particularly well. The one point of interest is the name of the film's sacrificial hero. One can't be exactly sure what D'Amato and/or Eastman had in mind by evoking this obscure name, but in my opinion, the most likely match-up is with the Nisus of one Greek legend. This Nisus was a king fighting an invading army, but his defenses were betrayed when his daughter, who had fallen in love with the invaders' general, gave the enemy soldiers a pass into the city. Even here, though, the symbolism is pretty confused. Is the film's Nisus "betrayed" by Maida, since she talks him out of the vigilante life and indirectly brings about Nisus' death, just as the Greek king dies for his daughter's betrayal? However, the script doesn't really pay that much attention to Maida's sins, any more than it does to any other character's reasons for his or her actions.

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