Kevin Costner had an amazing run of successes at the box office from the mid-’80s into the early ’90s. A lot of these films relied on him playing an all-American good guy or at least someone who could be counted to be the good guy when the story required. However, he occasionally gambled on roles that required a darker persona in films like Revenge or A Perfect World. The earliest and most successful example of this subtrend in Costner’s career was No Way Out, a crafty little thriller that allowed the actor to apply his matinee star magnetism to a story steeped in moral ambiguity.
No Way Out is an updated adaptation of the novel The Big Clock that shifts the action from the newspaper world to the realm of U.S. politics. Tom Farrell is a well-liked navy officer who shacks up with Susan (Sean Young) on a trip to Washington D.C. The two carry on a love affair when his military career allows but their love is complicated by the fact that she is the kept woman of David Brice (Gene Hackman), who happens to be the Secretary of Defense. When David accidentally kills her in a jealous rage, he conspires with loyal assistant Scott (Will Patton) to create a story in which a Russian spy has killed her. Tom is hired by Brice to hunt for the killer – but Tom knows Brice is to blame and the circumstantial evidence threatens to make Tom look guilty…
No Way Out‘s source novel was originally adapted as a film noir and that’s the kind of mood that Robert Garland’s script successfully emulates, mixing in a bit of the paranoid political thriller that fits the late ’80s zeitgeist perfectly. Though it never wastes time, it’s worth noting that it does a nice job at setting up characterizations and convincingly selling the Tom/Susan love affair before the thrills kick in. It’s also low-key in a way that works: the action is kept to a modest scale and the film relies more heavily on crafty plotting and interesting reveals of character to generate tension rather than overblown setpieces.
That said, No Way Out benefits from stylish and brisk direction by Roger Donaldson, who brings visual excitement to both the romantic and thriller elements. For example, an early scene involving Tom and Susan’s first tryst in the back of a limo became a much-discussed scene during the film’s original release and there’s also an excellent car chase that becomes an epic foot chase midway through the film.
Donaldson also gets strong performances across the board. Costner does well with his morally complicated lead, selling the audience on both his desperation and determination as the story’s turns force him to break the rules to ever-escalating degrees. Young is fantastic in a small but pivotal role as the mistress, conveying both her lusty appeal and the internal tension of her dual life. On the other side of the story, Hackman gives a believable performance as a petty power-broker who gets really bitchy when the pressure is on and Patton almost walks away with the film as social-climbing bureaucrat who gets more ruthless and unhinged as the situation darkens. The backing cast also includes amusing turns by Howard Duff as a senator who wields politeness like a weapon and Fred Dalton Thompson as a cynical CIA honcho.
In short, No Way Out is a cracking little thriller that draws power from its investment in characterization and its intimate scale – and it’s also a good example of Costner’s ability to a tackle a darker kind of hero role in a convincing manner.
Blu-Ray Notes: Shout! Factory picked up this title for blu-ray in the U.S. and has issued a nice little catalog title edition of it. The MGM-sourced transfer looks pretty good, handling both the nighttime and daytime material with solid amounts of color and detail. Lossless 5.1 and 2.0 stereo tracks are included: the 5.1 mix has more depth but the dialogue sounds more natural in the 2.0 mix. In terms of extras, Donaldson does a scene-specific solo commentary track that has plenty of info on the cast, locations, challenges of the shoot and how the production was assembled. A trailer rounds things out.