Is it a crime of passion or an act of treason? So asks the tagline on the poster for No Way Out, an exciting noir-thriller from 1987 that may not be so relevant today, but is nonetheless a very good time at the movies. It’s part of a number of titles packed into the era about the tension between the United States and the former Soviet Union, with a mix of action, drama, mystery, and romance. In other words, watch it.
We meet Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner), a young U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander attending an inaugural ball, asked by his good friend Scott Pritchard (Will Patton) to come and meet the Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman). He’s told there might be a job opportunity if Brice sees potential. Let’s say their meeting isn’t impressive, but meanwhile, at the party, Tom also gets close to the alluring Susan Atwell (Sean Young) and the two connect immediately, having a ravenous (and funny) affair in the limo ride home. A relationship starts and they quickly fall in love, but Tom is shipped out, where, on a ship, he becomes a hero, making a daring rescue. Brice notices.
Back in Washington D.C., Tom takes a job with the Secretary, continuing his somewhat secret love affair with Atwell, who we discover is also Brice’s mistress. Of course. Suspicious that she has other lovers, Brice confronts her and in a fit of jealous madness, accidently kills her (Not a spoiler). It could spell the end of his career, but Pritchard has a plan, he’ll pin the murder on “Yuri,” a suspected Soviet mole in the Pentagon. Who should investigate? Farrell of course, and soon, the heartbroken Lieutenant is trying to deal with the death of the woman he loves but unable to tell anyone about his involvement nor the fact that he knows who did it. In a nutshell, he’s got no way out.
Directed by Roger Donaldson, and based on Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel The Big Clock, which was adapted to film twice earlier, No Way Out, is a smart, sleek, and tense thriller that is led entirely by its very well developed characters and the know-not-know relationships between them. That begins with Costner, who is in peak form here, slim, energetic, commanding. He wears the Dress Whites very well (reminds me of Richard Gere) and is every bit believable as the trapped Navy man fighting a ticking time bomb that could very point to him as the killer. I’ll get to that.
Hackman is of course perfectly cast, and while he’s not in the film for much of its run time, is so dominating that it feels like he’s a much bigger part of it. Kudos really go to Patton, who is simply riveting, doing something with Pritchard that is next level stuff, clearly allowed by Donaldson to give the character a lot of room to twist him into knots. He’s just plain fun to watch. And then there’s the lovely Young, who is playful, sexy, intelligent, and as is necessary to the plot, wholly abused. This is the tragedy of the story and Young handles this very well, making us believe she is a woman with a great deal of power but on the inside shattered by the role her life has taken. It’s sensational stuff.
Now, let’s get to that ticking time bomb. That comes in the form of a photograph that a computer is trying to render from a negative of a Polaroid. Keeping in mind that this is set in 1987, such a thing is not so easy and takes a room-sized computer to try and get it done, scanning pixel by pixel in an excruciatingly long endeavor. More so, the image is being render on screens throughout the department that Tom is head of so while action is happening around it, we notice the blurry picture slowly take shape. Thing is, we already know what the picture will reveal, as does Tom, and it’s this information that keeps much of the film’s second half churning. I love this kind of thing in movies.
Enter the great George Dzundza as Sam Hesselman, the lead at the computer center and friend of Tom. Dzundza is crucial to the last act, playing a man tugged in several different directions, trying to decide where his loyalties lie, especially when they become tested one after the other. You have to ask yourself, what would you do?
Certainly, the film is almost laughable now if you were to judge it by today’s technology, and if you have no appreciation for what it was like in the late 80s, the central conceit of the film’s tension will seem lacking. In a time when we can do on our handphones most of what is seen on screen as major government advancements, it might not have the impact it’s reaching for. Still, the film manages to give that tension such fluidity and believability in the chase that it’s hardly a thought. Then there’s the ending, which is a hate it or love it kind of thing, but I think it works. It’s clever and adds a spin to the whole story that changes everything. Definitely give this a look.