Escape From El Diablo

Director: Gordon Hessler          
Timothy Van Patten, Jimmy McNichol, John Ethan Wayne

Recently, former child star Jimmy McNichol was asked by People magazine why, when he was on the brink of superstardom, he chose to appear in the movies Smokey Bites The Dust, Night Warning, and Escape From El Diablo. McNichol seemed to shrug off the entire experience in his answer, saying, "It was neither the right time nor the right material. Basically, I sold myself out." He may have an excuse for making these movies, but except to laugh at the extreme camp value of Night Warning, there's no excuse to watch any of these movies - including this movie to be reviewed, Escape From El Diablo.

Pauli (Van Patten), a California surf dude who's more moronic than usual (if that's possible), is rescued by his beach buds after he stupidly tries to get money from a motorcycle gang they owe him for repairs to his vehicle after they caused an accident. While the gang celebrates their victory at the beach that night, Pauli invites the gang to come along with him to Rosa's Cantina, an infamous bar across the Mexican border. The gang declines, except for Daniel (McNichol), who reluctantly tags along for reasons of loyalty and possibly keeping an eye on his buddy.

Taking off on their dirt bike, they reach Mexico and the cantina the next morning. While waiting for the action to start that night, they bump into a prison warden, who runs El Diablo - the fortress prison nearby. He warns them that the cantina is used by the guards at El Diablo prison to let off steam, and that it's not appropriate for young Americans as themselves. Later, taking a swim near the prison, they discover an escaping prisoner, who shortly after is captured by the warden and the guards. You'd think even two surfer dudes would have figured out by now that they aren't in a healthy situation - but apparently they don't, appearing that night at the cantina.

It will come as no surprise to most viewers that at the cantina, Pauli manages to make an ass of himself, pissing off the relaxing warden so much, that a fight breaks out and Pauli is arrested and thrown in El Diablo. Daniel is saved from the cops by Sundance (Wayne), another young American whose name, and his own interest in El Diablo are never explained until near the end of the movie. In case you are wondering, Wayne is indeed the real life son of John Wayne. His performance can't really be judged by this movie, because his role in the movie is so badly worked into the script and he has very little dialogue. However, he does manage to be less obnoxious than Van Patten and McNichol, which I guess counts for something.

Daniel later goes to El Diablo to try to deal with the warden for Pauli's release, but every time he pays a fine, the warden increases the amount of the supposed fine. Soon, Daniel himself finds himself on the run from the warden and the guards from El Diablo. After finding sanctuary at the local orphanage, Daniel calls the rest of the gang down, where they plan to break Pauli out of prison with the ingenious use of skateboards, dirt bikes, and punches to the face.

Questions kept popping in my head throughout this movie. How did Pauli and Daniel manage to bring down a lot of clothing if they just drove to Mexico on their dirt bike? Why is every adult Mexican in the movie, except for the nun, portrayed so negatively? Why did Daniel smash up the warden's office when still trying to make a deal with the warden for Pauli's release? Why doesn't Daniel or his friends call the American embassy? Why don't they talk to their parents or Daniel's parents? Where are the guards' guns when the teens storm the prison? Why is the fate of Sundance's brother never really explained or dealt with?

The answer to all these questions, except the last one,  is simple: the script is aimed at the lowest denominator, to our natural instincts that crave action and immediate results. A delay to explain things would stop the supposed breakneck speed and exploitive elements. These flaws in the script might have been overlooked if there was enough exploitive stuff, and executed well enough. Not here. There's only a few seconds of nudity, the "action" consists mainly of people punching each other in sloppily choreographed fights, and El Diablo - supposedly like the prison in Midnight Express - turns out to be a dull-looking prison where the worst punishment seems to be inflicting a few blows with a nightstick to some prisoner.

English director Gordon Hessler was never a great, but other movies in his filmography showed that at least he brought a level of competence to even stuff like Pray For Death. Technical work here, however, is extremely bad; obvious post-synced dialogue sounds hollow, editing of the action scenes is amateurish, and the cinematography has that "soft" European look to it. Which brings up another flaw; "Mexico" here is obviously filmed in Spain, due to the architecture of the buildings. (The movie was apparently a British/Spanish co-production.)

Oh, as for the answer to that last question in that list: they actually wanted to leave room for a sequel. Fortunately, Escape From El Diablo doesn't seem to have been exhibited that much when it was released, so I don't think we have anything to worry about.

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See also: Overkill, Abducted 2, Legion Of Iron