2 out of 5
Directed by: Roger Donaldson
Not being the type who tends to go ga-ga over the ladies, or mens, or your-preferences, nor the type to lose my shit over sex, it’s always a bit of a leap for me to understand protagonists who experience that in a film, book, or show. I mean, I’m human, so I’m not totally disbelieving over here, but I need a basis beyond so-and-so is hot and a good lay. Like, give me something that would make someone, y’know, kill for that so-and-so. Being a noir / pulp fan, with a lot of media in those genres based around sex and moider, you’d think I’d be hard-pressed to find things I enjoy, but there are a lot of ways to work around the above “limitations,” besides actually giving justifications that are more graspable for types like me.
One way – maybe a defining noir way – is the ol’ twist-the-knife maneuver: force the decision to hide the body or whatnot. And this is something 80s thriller No Way Out actually does really well, somewhat on both accounts, actually: it captures Navy Intelligence man Tom Ferrell (Kevin Costner) in the middle of a murder investigation involving his fling-turned-girlfriend Susan Atwell (Sean Young), and his boss, Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman), and does so by twisting the knife, and also allowing some time for it to make it reasonable that men might respond emotionally around Atwell… though Young is unfortunately left to play her as the one-note devil-may-care temptress that’s I suppose a norm in such setups. Nonetheless, it’s a setup that works, and director Roger Donaldson has Costner rather equally quippy to Young’s playfulness, and both are rather equally sexualized / idealized, making them fun to watch during the initial montage of their forming relationship; similarly, we expertly dip into the turn, with lighting turning shadowy and attitudes going sour on a dime. When Costner realizes he’s caught, it’s an excellent bit of acting, as he’s required to react without betraying that reaction to others.
…Except, well, it doesn’t quite cover the question: why? This is of the utmost importance in these types of films, being able to either answer that question or distract us from asking it in the first place. And No Way Out hits a rather hard stop here. There are explanations, but none quite feel good enough for the stakes as they’ve been established in the movie, and at only about the halfway mark, that we start to slide down a slope of quality thereafter leaves for quite a fall.
From here on out, the movie’s all half-realized: we have a car chase for no reason; Donaldson cuts around the Pentagon, where the final act take place, for no real reason; and Will Patton starts acting irrationally, outside of the very dated “reasons” the movie provides for those actions, which also double down on: why?
This allows all the movie’s tension to practically unravel, and drag its feet when it’s intending to create tension – the various chases seem without reason, and the knife-twisting feels pointless. I’m not really piling on the negativity due to the ending, but it also doesn’t pull the movie back to good territory. Composer Maurice Jarre also seems a bit out of sorts with this, as his dreamy bop works really well for the opening business, but feels lost as we transition to questionable running around.
The insult to injury are the good elements seeded in: even though the technology is also dated, I like that some key moments hang on its slowness, which feels like an interesting jab at the churn of government / politics in which Ferrell is caught up. And there’s a more developed version of Hackman’s character that starts to peek through, which could’ve made his dynamic with Costner even more compelling, but he’s otherwise underutilized and his role underwritten.
It’s half of a great setup, and then forty or fifty minutes of thumb-twiddling – or thumb-twiddling while people are running around on screen, which is a poor combo – , and failing to provide us with the Why, beyond generalized broad strokes, any of this needs to happen.