Looking back on the 80’s, I discovered yet another film in the NetFlix® instant queue that I hadn’t seen. While the 80’s were more known for other films. The “brat pack” films (The Breakfast Club (1985), Sixteen Candles (1984)). Comedies (Ghostbusters (1984), Animal House)/ Horror flicks (A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Poltergeist). But, No Way Out was a thriller that is nearly as memorable as the rest of these now classic films.
But, what would the passage of time have done to the film? Had this 80’s thriller gotten better with the passage of time, like, say, fine wine? Or had time ruined it, a la milk?
Kevin Costner was still working out his place in the film world at the time of No Way Out. Garnering success that very same year for playing Eliott Ness in The Untouchables (1987), he thought he might be headed for action hero status. But with the phenomenal success of Bull Durham just around the corner, he would soon make an abrupt turn to comedy, with only the occasional jaunt back into action films (notably, Waterworld, which was an epic failure).
While his career was headed for the rom-com route, he decided to give a try at the dramatic thriller with No Way Out. Despite being obviously rather unprepared for the role, he managed to pull it off (a feat which probably earned him roles later on in dramatic films like JFK (1991)). While the viewer never really quite buys the chemistry between him and Sean Young, he does seem to step into the role of trapped man very well, as can be seen once his relationship with Young is abruptly ended.
Sean Young, on the other hand, seems to be short-shifted by pairing her with Costner. While she spends most of her role fawning over him, he returns that affection by treating her as an object. He seems to covet her more to be able to claim she’s his then for any real affection for her. It’s an odd twist, since that is supposed to be Hackman’s attitude for her. Bizarrely, Costner plays it much more convincingly – even though he’s supposed to be the one giving his heart to her.
Young is a surprising, and quite unexpected, breath of fresh air to an otherwise predominantly male cast. Costner’s misrepresentation of his feelings for her undermine her performance so much it’s almost a relief when she is cast away, and the real meat of the film can start. When it does, it’s where Will Patton, normally a secondary character, really steps up and does his best to steal the film from right under Costner and Hackman’s noses. It’s an easy feat to best Hackman, who seems to phone in his character, but a tough steal from Costner, who also steps it up when it counts.
Just as Costner finds his pace and Patton arrives to steal the show, director Roger Donaldson (The Recruit (2003)) finds his pace and takes the viewer through a series of twists and turns. These keep the tension ratcheted as high as it can get. Costner’s Tom Farrell finds himself caught between leading an investigation into finding the other man that was sleeping with Young’s Atwell, while at the same time trying to hide the fact that the other man is in fact him. It’s a narrow tightrope he has to walk, and Donaldson does a good job of making the tension as palpable to the audience as it is for Costner’s Farrell.
As the movie winds on through the various twists and turns, that tension stays at a peak through a rather extended period. That makes for a wild roller-coaster ride of emotions for the viewer. With both Patton and Costner pushing their acting skills to the limit, it’s no surprise the viewer should enjoy every minute of it.
The lack of foreshadowing has been much talked about, thanks to an ending from out of left field. For some reason it doesn’t seem tacked-on simply because the movie works well even without it. Usually, tacked-on endings wrap things up a little too nicely, and seem rather pat. In this case, the ending works because it doesn’t answer all the nagging little questions with a simple explanation. Instead it just adds another layer of tension that can only be appreciated by watching the film through again.
While the beginning – including the completely one-sided chemistry between Young and Costner – leaves a lot to be desired, it could be it helps the film as a whole. The best part of the film then completely blindsides the viewer with it’s never-let-go style, making the film leave much more of an impact on the viewer than if it had been good from start to finish.
Maybe partially because of it’s recovery from that rather dismal beginning, No Way Out plays out as a top-notch thriller. Costner turns in a solid performance after his shaky start. Patton delivers well-above expectations. Director Roger Donaldson knows just how to grab the viewer and keep them when it really counts. No Way Out is definitely worth checking out, even today.