I don’t know about Escape From L.A., man. It’s kinda like when someone tells you a really funny joke and just tells it perfectly, and then somewhere down the line you’re like “tell that awesome joke again” and they do, but they just don’t quite encapsulate or get it right a second time and the magic goes sour. Escape From NY is that first time and this sequel… well let’s just say the magic was lost on me this time around. I get that John Carpenter wanted to expand the lore, his first film was definitely popular enough to warrant a sequel and Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken for sure deserves many more films, but this… was just not a great time at the movies. Snake once again finds himself in a near identical predicament as the first film: infiltrate futuristic Los Angeles, now also a cordoned off no fly zone for dissidents, find and neutralize a Che Guevara clone (kind of a weak villain, I might add) with plans on rebel terrorism who is in cahoots with the daughter of the US president (Cliff Robertson) who is about as corrupt, evil and unscrupulous as you can get. So a ponytailed Stacy Keach handles his mission and he ventures into LA where he meets a motley gaggle of freaks, criminals and outliers including a renegade surfer (Peter Fonda), a twitchy guide (Steve Buscemi), a Botox saturated mad doctor (Bruce Campbell, but you’d only know by the voice) and more. Poor Pam Grier shows up as a gang commander but they’ve dubbed her voice over with a different dude to make her sound like a man, which was a huge WTF, like is the character supposed to be transgender or just fuckin really husky? There’s fights, shootouts, hang gliders, betrayals, but none of it happens with the sheer Grindhouse joy of the first film, and it all feels very strained, try-hard and disingenuous. Even Russell as Snake falters here and there, his whispery tough guy shtick that was SO effective in Escape from NY feeling a tad silly here. The obligatory final ‘fuck you’ Snake gets here is fun and appropriately cathartic but it’s too little too late after an entire film of subpar antics that just don’t cut it. Not impressed.
I’m a huge fan of the Riddick films, I love the mythology, world building, alien anatomy and general vibe, and while the film trilogy is amazing there are also all kinds of other bits of lore to be found in other arenas including comics, animated shorts and two spectacular video games that I got a chance to view entire walk-throughs on YouTube the other night. Now, these aren’t just cheap promotional ‘tie-in’ games that are rushed into production to be released alongside the film for no other purpose than cash, they are deep, important chunks of Riddick’s story with integral character beats, wonderful stories and jaw dropping set pieces all their own. They’re also great because Vin Diesel did the voice and motion capture work for Riddick, which has to be the lynchpin role of his career and he’s supported by a galaxy of star talent and cult actors in voice roles.
The first game is called Escape From Butcher Bay and it sees Riddick and his perennial bounty Hunter nemesis/best pal Johns (Cole Hauser) arrive at the titular penitentiary, a grim institution lorded over by preening Germanic warden Hoxie (Dwight Schultz) and brutally kept in check by his corrupt head guard Abbott (rapper Xzibit). It’s here that Riddick must fight his way through hordes of feral inmates and descend deep into the bowels of the prison to find a way out and discover pieces of his mysterious identity. He participates in a gruesome fight club run by Centurion (Michael Rooker), fights alongside exiled gang kingpin Jagger Valence (Ron Perlman) and runs afoul of many other creeps voiced by awesome folks like Tony Plana, the late William Morgan Sheppard, Stephen McHattie and Joaquim De Almeida. Deep in the heart of the facility he encounters half undead deformities and meets a shadowy subterranean prophet called Pope Joe (Willis Burkes) who operates on him and first gives him his ‘sight in the darkness’ eyes. Along with these eyes come haunting visions where Furyan spirit Shirah (Kristen Lehman) speaks out to him from his ancestral past and guides his eventual path towards destiny that we see unfold in the films.
The second game is called Assault On Dark Athena and while not as mythologically rich as Butcher Bay it has the advantage of being made a few years later and so the graphics, cutscenes, fighting styles and visual aesthetics are far more polished and impressive. It picks up right where the other left off, as Riddick and Johns approach a mammoth slave ship ruled by aggressive tyrant Revas (Michelle Forbes), where he must fight and outwit his way to find intel and weaponry deep within the giant floating prison. He’s aided by former military man turned inmate Dacher (Lance Henriksen, superb) and he forges a deep bond with a little orphaned girl roaming the craft, a relationship that reminded me very much of Ripley and Newt from Aliens and provides Riddick’s arc with pathos and poignancy. I can’t speak for the actual gameplay, controls or anything on the ‘hands on’ aspects of these games as I essentially watched them as you would a movie, but in that sense they are absolutely terrific stories and more than essential to the Riddick canon and lore. Spectacularly violent, gory and hard-R like these stories were always meant to be, a beautiful fusion of poetic deep space atmosphere and kinda steampunk/mecha/convicts in space aesthetics and a wonderful pair of expansion stories on Riddick’s exciting, moving, imaginative, immersive and artistically spellbinding voyage through galaxies to find his identity, history and change the course of the universe’s future. Highly recommended, whether you want to get an old console and play them as games or hop on over to YouTube and view them as films.
Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia is a brilliantly vicious dark fable, a moody cautionary tale regarding the dangers of trust, the true nature of the sociopath and the ironic way in which demons sneak up on us while we are to busy looking for them with our backs turned. It’s also damn fine thriller filmmaking and fits nicely into a subgenre which I happen to be an avid fan of: the American road movie. The highways, byways and back roads of desolate rural USA have a bitter menace that clouds the air like the desert dust kicked up by many a vehicle on their way through. There’s endless possibility out there, for great and terrible evil, in a place where help is always a county away and opportunity looms on the horizon like the bloated California sun. From The Hitcher, to U Turn, to Thelma & Louise, to Duel and everything in between, it’s a setting that hums with cinematic potential. David Duchovney and Michelle Forbes play a yuppie couple who unwittingly wander into the path of extreme danger. Duchovney is a writer who is working on a book about American serial killers. Their journey takes them to many bloodstained locales where incidents took place. Eventually they decide to carpool with rugged redneck Earley Grayce (Brad Pitt), and his bimbo girlfriend Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis) whose IQ appears to be lower than the cut of her blouse. The two couples couldn’t be more different, yet get on well enough. Slowly it becomes clear that there’s something very off about Earley though, noticed keenly by Forbes’s intuition. Duchovney is enamored by the tumbleweed hick, and thinks he’s made a friend. He’s half right, and not even in the way he thinks. The film takes its time letting Earley’s true nature emerge, Pitt slowly detaches and unravels until the tarp is fully torn off and we see the sociopathic monster within. All set in abandoned clusters of former Americana and given slick, almost action movie direction from Sena, it’s not one to miss for any fan of a crackling psychological thriller.