Saturday, August 29, 2009
Adequate To The Occasion
Life sometimes happens. If I could update this site much more often I would but things have been a little off-kilter lately. No point in getting into why—not much of it would be very interesting to anyone but me anyway. August should never be this stressful, but there you go. Could some of what’s occupying my attention be part of why I popped NO WAY OUT into the DVD player? There might be a woman involved in some of my thoughts leading me to continually fixate on what’s going on with that little drama, but I’m not going to get too specific. After all, I don’t know for certain how often she reads this. Maybe I should just focus on the movie, a thriller released in August 1987 that holds up pretty well for the most part. The sort of thriller that isn’t made enough these days, it’s pretty much the film version of a good book you read on an airplane, offering enough of a feel of importance when in fact it’s actually pretty trashy. But it’s still pretty damn good, making it ideal to watch on a hot August night and is also gives the feel of a slick Hollywood production that is extremely well put together in all departments.
Not an easy plot to summarize, but I’ll try to avoid explicit spoilers: Naval Officer Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner) is attending an inaugural ball where he is introduced by old friend Scott Pritchard (Will Patton) to Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman). Soon after encountering Brice’s complete lack of interest Farrell meets the intriguing Susan Atwell (Sean Young) and, after an enjoyable tryst in a limo that takes them around the capital the two offer their names and begin an affair. Tom soon has to leave to go overseas but soon enough a brave rescue attempt catches the attention of Brice, who arranges for Farrell to return to Washington to work under him. It isn’t long after Farrell’s return to Susan that he discovers that she is actually Brice’s mistress. Though Farrell expresses his displeasure at the arrangement things are soon complicated when a shocking development (no spoilers!) results in Brice and Pritchard, looking for the other man she is seeing, attempting to use the situation to pretend to be looking for a KGB spy planted somewhere in the department who is thought to be imaginary. Farrell of course knows that it’s all a sham as he is placed in the impossible position of leading the search to uncover someone only he knows is himself.
Like I said, it holds up pretty well even with the change in the political climate and the now-ancient technology used in the search. Actually, the only 80s element that is almost entirely unbearable are the lousy pop songs (including a few tracks by Paul Anka) which turn up here and there. It’s pretty much a potboiler, which I mean in the best possible way, but it’s expertly put together by director Roger Donaldson (still doing good work with last year’s THE BANK JOB), screenwriter Robert Garland (the film is essentially a remake of the classic noir THE BIG CLOCK from the novel by Kenneth Fearing), legendary cinematographer John Alcott (who died before this film’s release). Garland skillfully keeps things moving with new elements continually coming up and minor political issues like the continually-discussed “phantom submarine” which never really amounts to much but gives the impression that important matters are being discussed. Particularly in the second half there’s a continually moving, continually roving camera that is never showy but constantly ratchets up the suspense and it feels like everyone is on the same page to make all this as effective as possible. Along with one infamous camera trick carried over from THE OMEN, there’s some terrific production design by J. Dennis Washington which helps a lot in convincing us of the sets that are supposed to represent the Pentagon, even if it’s impossible to swallow the climactic search through that enormous building—they try to get away with it by having Gene Hackman protest “It’s the largest building in the world!” but it still doesn’t help.
Combining those sets with extensive location work in the D.C. area it’s a film that makes very good use of the frame in almost every scene and the overall production pulls off the illusion of credibility with only a few minor missteps here and there (I don’t know, would the streets of D.C. be that deserted on Inauguration Night?) and to say that there are a few questions when the credits role is putting it mildly—I’m still wondering about the potential validity of a certain piece of evidence that Costner fabricates. But maybe that’s a moot point considering the somewhat notorious twist ending (like I said, no spoilers!) which in all honestly never bothered me much at the time and matters even less now maybe because the more I know about the world the more it becomes clear how little people in charge (I’m not even specifically talking about politics here, just the way the world is in general) really know about anything that’s going on and it’s one of a handful of things that makes NO WAY OUT a little more than just a sex-infused summer thriller. It is that very thing of course, but it’s a pretty damn good one too. Just another reminder of when popcorn movies with a smidgen of intelligence like this were more the norm. You can imagine some lame critic back in ’87 calling this a “crackerjack thriller” and getting quoted in the ads but in this case that person would be absolutely right.
Returning to this film for the first time in a while, I was struck by the presence of Kevin Costner in this role, filmed before his breakout in THE UNTOUCHABLES but held back until after its release. He’s not great in the part but his talent is clearly developing and it’s hard not to watch this and think, This guy was going to be Redford, damn it! I guess he was for a few years, but what the hell happened? After his Oscars and blockbusters I suppose the answer would be hubris, bad publicity and simple unfortunate choices. There are a handful of underrated titles sprinkled throughout his filmography which deserve more than they’ve gotten but looking at him here it’s hard not to hope a little that there’s still something else on this level that we can look forward to from him. Gene Hackman does some skillful work in an even trickier role, taking an essentially cold, unlikable person (forgetting even that he’s sort of the villain of the piece) and giving him some touches that make him recognizably human. The unpredictable energy Sean Young brings to her performance allows her to almost steal the film, taking what I would imagine is just written as ‘the girl’ and bringing oddly endearing touches which allows her presence to linger in the mind even when she’s offscreen. For all I know, the goofy touches of the character reveal her as more like the actual Sean Young than any other part she ever played (No Sean-Young-is-crazy jokes here—it’s too easy and besides, I always liked her). And yes, she’s pretty hot here too, particularly in the infamous limo scene.
In contrast, Will Patton’s shifty Scott Pritchard lets him take control of the second half making it funny and icy at the same time (I particularly like his response when Hackman throws a file folder at him) even though the nature of his character might not get by if the film were made these days (he’s revealed as gay in offhand dialogue—“I’ll be damned.” “So will he, if you believe the Old Testament,” says Fred Dalton Thompson and you know that this particular actor believes this). Watching it again, I can’t help but think that his ultra-pretentious use of Latin when he’s proving a point late in the film has been parodied somewhere—maybe Phil Hartman on a NEWSRADIO espisode. Among the character actors doing strong work through Donaldson’s direction are George Dzundza, Jason Bernard and DARKMAN’s Nicholas Worth as “Cup Breaker”. Future Oscar nominee David Paymer appears for a few moments as “Technician”. Composer Maurice Jarre contributes a mostly electronic score which fortunately only sounds blatantly 80s (so there’s one more thing which dates it) during a crucial chase scene.
It’s a slick potboiler that doesn’t require a great deal of analysis but I suppose you could say that NO WAY OUT is ultimately about what happens to men when a woman who’s a live wire beyond anything they’ve ever encountered enters their life and what can happen as a result. Total chaos, that’s what. I don’t believe that’s what the movie’s about and it’s certainly not anything which is going on in my life right now. You believe that, don’t you? Don’t you? NO WAY OUT is a product of its time but it’s a solid example of a film made for adults which can be enjoyed without feeling like you’re being insulted, something that Orion was pretty damn good at back in the 80s. And if it causes other things to come to mind…well, that’s my own business. Like I said, life sometimes happens and if you think about it that could be what NO WAY OUT is about as well.