Robin’s Underrated Gems: No Way Out (1987)

Sadly, I think many people from today’s generation may only be familiar with No Way Out because of a gag on Family Guy where Chris says “I haven’t been that confused since the ending of No Way Out“, and then it cuts to a flashback of Chris leaving a screening of No Way Out saying: “How does Kevin Costner keep getting work?!”. Now, I’ve often asked myself that same question many times, but in all fairness, No Way Out does contain one of Kevin Costner’s best performances. I’m certainly not a huge Costner fan and I’ve often wondered how an actor who just seems so… well, average, has managed to become such a big movie star. However, I think the key to Kevin Costner’s stardom is that he was just really good at selecting quality projects in the early stages of his career. Appearing in such as stellar efforts as The Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and Dances With Wolves helped build the man an awful lot of credibility before the likes of Waterworld and The Postman came along. One of the best and most underrated films of Costner’s career is definitely the 1987 thriller, No Way Out. I know the presence of Costner has probably made a lot of people skeptical about going back and checking this film out, but I consider it to be one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen.

No Way Out also happens to be one those great remakes that most people don’t even know is a remake. It’s based on a Kenneth Fearing novel called The Big Clock, which was originally adapted into a film in 1948 starring Charles Laughton and Ray Milland. While the story originally revolved around a large magazine publisher, No Way Out cleverly translates the story into a government setting and sets much of the action inside the Pentagon. This film is directed by Roger Donaldson, who would later collaborate with Kevin Costner on another great Washington D.C. thriller, Thirteen Days. As the film opens, Costner plays a Naval Commander named Tom Farrell, who is trying to attain a prominent position inside the Pentagon. He is old college friends with Scott Pritchard (Will Patton), who works as general counsel for Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman), and Tom hopes to use that friendship to earn a job on Brice’s staff. After interacting with them at a diplomatic reception, Tom meets a woman named Susan Atwell (Sean Young). They flirt for a little bit and have so much instant chemistry that, in the movie’s most famous scene, they immediately engage in a passionate sex scene in the back of a limousine (to the tune of a bad Paul Anka song!) before they even formally introduce themselves.

Tom eventually attains a position on Secretary Brice’s staff and begins a serious relationship with Susan, but finds himself in a very awkward situation when he finds out that Susan is also Brice’s mistress! While Susan genuinely loves Tom, she finds it difficult to break things off with a man as powerful and intimidating as Brice and many complications ensue. It’s hard to really describe the mechanics of the plot without giving too much away, but let’s just say that Brice soon finds himself in hot water after committing a crime. Pritchard decides to orchestrate a cover-up that will cause someone else to take the downfall for Brice’s crime. He builds the cover story around an infamous urban legend about an undercover KGB agent named “Yuri”, a Russian spy who has supposedly infiltrated the Pentagon and is passing himself off as an American citizen. Pritchard launches a mammoth government investigation that will allow him to track down the only witness to Brice’s crime. His plan is to frame and murder this witness and also pass him off as the mysterious “Yuri”. The only thing Pritchard doesn’t know is that the witness to the crime is actually Tom Farrell, who winds up being put in charge of the investigation! It’s the classic Hitchcockian scenario of an innocent man being wrongly accused, except that this time, the innocent man is now in a position where he’s looking for himself! Once Tom realizes that Pritchard is going to have “Yuri” murdered once he’s discovered, he knows he has to find evidence that Brice himself is responsible for the crime.

This is an ingeniously clever scenario that puts the story’s hero is such an unenviable position that it’s impossible not to sympathize with him. To Costner’s credit, he handles this role very well. I’ve always felt that Costner is at his best when he’s simply playing average, everyday characters, and that it’s when he tries to take on larger-than-life roles like Robin Hood that his acting inadequacies are horribly exposed. Gene Hackman is terrific as always as the hateful Brice, but it’s Will Patton who completely walks away with the film. Patton is a solid character actor who has been doing great work in supporting roles for 25 years, but has never achieved full stardom or really gotten the credit he deserves. He brings a wonderful intensity to the role of Pritchard, turning into a character who’s fiercely devoted to Brice and will do absolutely anything to protect him. Even though he’s a villain, you almost end up admiring Pritchard for his fierce sense of loyalty, but you also feel a little bad for him since his loyalty is pretty misplaced and Brice clearly does not deserve or appreciate it. Anyway, No Way Out gets a lot out of its clever plot and does a beautiful job at building up suspense. Tom is put into the position where has to try and prove his innocence while dodging several obstacles at the same time, such as a couple of witnesses who are brought into the Pentagon and can ID him as Susan’s lover if they spot him, and a hilariously outdated computer that is slowly enhancing the blurry image of an incriminating photograph of Tom.

No Way Out winds up building to one of the most genuinely surprising twist endings in cinema history. In spite of what Chris Griffin said, it’s not really “confusing”, but it does give you quite a jolt. At first glance, this may seem like one of those twists that only exists for the purpose of being a twist and that it causes the entire story to fall apart. But you once start thinking back over No Way Out and watch it a second time, the twist makes a surprising amount of sense. This movie does not cheat as the narrative is incredibly well-constructed and there are a lot little touches that may seem insignificant at first glance, but hold a lot of importance once you find out the ending. A lot of screenwriting experts will say that it’s okay to get away with one major coincidence in your script, but that having any more really stretches credibility. The plot of No Way Out contains two major coincidences, but upon closer inspection, you realize that the second coincidence totally cancels out the first coincidence and negates it from being a coincidence at all. If that doesn’t make much sense to you, you’ll have to watch the movie to fully appreciate what I’m talking about. But that’s really the whole point of this column, isn’t it? In spite of a few humourously dated touches (the primitive computer technology, the cheesy electronic Casio keyboard music during the chase scenes), No Way Out holds up really well 23 years later and is a model that modern-day thrillers should really be following. Like I said, once you finish watching the film, you’ll likely feel compelled to go back and watch it again and view it in an entirely different light. I know the presence of Kevin Costner may be a detractor in getting certain people to watch this, but I can honestly say that No Way Out doesn’t just work in spite of Kevin Costner, but largely because of him.

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