No Way Out (1987)

*. Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock had an unbeatable premise for a suspense thriller: an innocent man forced to investigate himself by the very man he knows was the real murderer. Unfortunately, the 1948 adaptation wasn’t anything to get excited by. If they’d only lost the title, and changed the setting from the New York publishing world.
*. No Way Out happily corrects both failings. There’s no big clock, real or metaphorical, and instead of a giant publishing conglomerate we’ve moved to the Pentagon. I think this second change was a stroke of genius — having the hero take on the bureaucracy of the military-industrial complex as part of a plot to cover up a political scandal is both entirely believable and ups the level of danger. Tom Farrell really doesn’t have any way out. Washington is a company town, after all.
*. A long list of actors turned down the leading roles here, but it sort-of made Kevin Costner a star (it came out right after The Untouchables, which also helped). If only he’d quite while he was ahead.
*. I semi-jest. Costner is well cast here, as is the cute and vulnerable Sean Young as Susan. They work well together. Even the make-out scene in the back of the limo has a bit of ’80s heat. Without any help from the soundtrack, I might add. I originally thought the song that plays, “No Way Out,” had been written for the movie but apparently it first appeared on the 1983 Paul Anka album Walk a Fine Line. The best I can say for it is that it fits the period, along with Young’s hairstyle and Costner’s treasure trail.
*. Gene Hackman as Secretary of Defense David Brice doesn’t have to do much but he does it well, enough so that he was asked to do the same role again ten years later in Absolute Power. Will Patton is more potent as the villainous enabler Scott Pritchard. Though again the homosexual angle is played way down, you can tell there’s something more than just blind obedience in Pritchard’s devotion to Brice.
*. I really liked this when it first came out. It plays a little tamer today, but I think it’s still a good thriller. The chase scene seems like something the studio might have insisted on, as it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The twist ending also turned a lot of people off. Richard Schickel even thought it spoiled the whole movie. I didn’t mind it at all. It’s a bit gratuitous and silly, but it doesn’t wreck anything. The novel ended on an abrupt note, which had to be sensationalized in the earlier movie. But here Costner doesn’t have a wife to fall back on for a happy ending. Once Susan is killed off there’s no longer any conventional resolution for the story possible. What we get here fits.
*. I think the dating is what holds it back today. Those reams of paper piling out of the dot matrix printer were a real throwback for me. And while I don’t mind the ending in dramatic terms, it’s a throwback too, to the days of Cold War espionage and different threat matrixes. Maybe in another twenty years or so the 1980s will have aged a little better and this will be recognized, like The Big Clock, as a movie worth coming back to. Today, however, it may still be too familiar. It’s well done though, which gives me hope that it just needs some time.

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