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.


Anonymous said...

I really like this movie. I saw it and did not understand it when I was a young 13 year old, but since it was on an HBO run, it was easy to watch it again and again. It is the right length and has one of the better chase scenes which these days would be the camera shifting seizure inducing horror type.

And Will Patton takes his role and walks away with the movie. I only see this character whenever I see him in a film.

christian said...

I highly advise any student of modern film to pick up Ian Gray's unsung book of scathing, insightful essays and interviews, SEX, STUPIDITY AND GREED, which includes a long interview with Sean Young and HER side of the story, which of course paints a different picture. And a much more realistic one about how this town treats "uppity" actresses.

le0pard13 said...

This was always a fun thriller of a movie. I recall at the time, some critics and moviegoers loved it right up to the twist. Then many said they could have done without it. I thought it fit well into the arc the storytellers built for it - I didn't find it disappointing.

The original movie poster your include in your post reminded me how OO7-like it was at the time (the main character looking right into the camera, with the swooning girl close by). Funny what one recalls about a movie as one gets older ;-). Another wonderful look back at a film we don't get much these days. Thanks.

J.D. said...

"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."

Well said! I would agree whole-heartedly. For me, F/X, that Bryan Brown thriller, falls into the same category. Exciting equivalent of page turner that they just don't make anymore... at least not well but NO WAY OUT is a keeper for all of the reasons you stated so eloquently. And I will also agree with Anon about the awesomeness of Will Patton. Always loved watching him. He's such a fascinating actor to watch, always doing something in the background of scenes or in the corner of the frame.

Joe Dante said...

One reason NO WAY looksbtter than its competition today is that it's a remake of John Farrow's excellent THE BIG CLOCK (1948) with Ray Milland, Charles Laughton and George Macready in the Costner, Hackman and Patton roles. Except for its dopey final twist, NO WAY is a model of updating and adaptation (of Kenneth Fearing's novel, set in the publishing world). I still prefer the original, if only for its great cast and breezy tone.

Ned Merrill said...

Watched this again around this time last year when it was available for free in HD on Comcast and was thoroughly entertained. I remember my grandfather being really high on this film the summer it came out.

I would agree with your comments, as well as J.D.'s, that this is an adult thriller of the kind that isn't made anymore. F/X is an apt comparison. And, yes, I too came away with the feeling that things did not play out the way this film portends for Costner. AMERICAN FLYERS is another film from this era, pre-stardom, that shows Costner to good advantage. Perhaps there is still a late-career surge within him. Hackman is steady as always, Patton is brilliant, and Young is, as you say, both refreshingly quirky and damn sexy (I like her, too).

One thing I noticed the last time is that one of the CIA goons is played by Chris D., founder of the legendary L.A. punk the Flesh Eaters and programmer for the American Cinematheque. How he ended up in this movie is something I'd really like to know. The other goon, btw, is played by reliable '80s character actor Marshall Bell, for whom roles like this were tailor-made.

Ned Merrill said...

Oh, and I second the plug for Ian Gray's SEX, STUPIDITY, AND GREED, which I stupidly got rid of in one of the many house-cleanings instigated by my ex-wife, but I don't want to litter this space with personal issues no one else is interested in. :-)

Mr. Peel said...

I'm definitely going to seek out the Ian Gray book, it sounds very interesting. Thanks for letting me know about that.

J.D. --

I haven't seen F/X in years so I should do something about that. Orion really was something special to have at that time. And yes, Will Patton is just fantastic.


I've seen THE BIG CLOCK which is just great but it's been such a long time that I didn't have much to add about it. I do remember noticing that the two films are actually surprisingly similar in their structure, not something you'd necessarily expect, so I really should give it another look. Many thanks to you for checking in, hope all is well!


Holy cow, that is Chris D. and I didn't even realize it! Marshall Bell I can spot from a mile away, but now I'm floored. What the hell is Chris D. doing in this movie? Glad you liked the movie as well and yes, we're in agreement on Sean Young.

My thanks to everyone for the terrific comments.

J.D. said...


I hear ya re: pre-stardom Kevin Costner. FANDANGO was one of the best things he's ever done and it was before he hit it big. I also have a soft spot for BULL DURHAM but they may be mostly for Susan Sarandon.

Ned Merrill said...

Mr. Peel,

Since you are such a regular in the L.A. repertory scene, I figured you of all people would appreciate the Chris D. appearance. You'll have to let us know what, if anything, you find out.

As for Costner, yes, I agree wholeheartedly on BULL DURHAM. I still have to see FANDANGO.

Some of the best interviews in SEX, STUPIDITY, AND GREED that I can recall: Mel Gibson drunkenly explaining that a man's asshole is meant for "taking a shit" and not sex & Sandra Bullock holding an interview stark naked in her dressing room (Gray assures us that she is the ONLY star with small breasts who has KEPT them that way) while her make-up artists / dress-fitters work on her.

BTW, Gray uses a pseudonym--can't recall how he got such access.

christian said...

Gray's book accurately diagnoses what's wrong with modern filmmaking more than any other book of the past 20 years. He's also a genre fan, which figures into his essays and interviews (we find out Samantha Eggar was repulsed by THE BROOD and hates it for example) and he has a detailed look at the DR. MOREAU fiasco with Brando and Kilmer...but the Sean Young interview is a stand-out.

Toby Roan said...

This is one of those movies that a lot of people really like, but I just don't get.

It has to be one of my most excruciating movie-going experiences. (LADYHAWKE is another.) But I find almost anything with Kevin Costner impossible to sit through.