Lord of the Sighs
No Escape begins with a text crawl which informs us that in the then-distant future of 2022, all prisons are controlled by corporations. It’s a promising enough – though hardly original – basis for a movie, but it turns out to have little bearing on No Escape’s actual narrative, which turns out to be more Mad Max-light than the futuristic prison break movie it initially promises.
Our hero is John Robbins (Ray Liotta) an ex-Marine sentenced to life at a maximum-security institution for murdering his superior officer. Shortly after his arrival, John defies the orders of the sadistic warden (Michael Lerner) and as punishment is transferred to Absolom, a deserted tropical island that’s home to all the prisoners who refuse to fall in line. This change of scenery happens so early that one wonders why the initial prison is in the movie at all; the whole location could be cut with minimal changes to the story.
After being dumped on Absolom, John meets the Outsiders, a warlike tribe of savages who control half the island. When John runs afoul of their sadistic leader (Stuart Wilson), he narrowly escapes and is taken in by the Insiders, a rival society on the island with a far more civilized way of life. Led by the charismatic Father (Lance Henricksen), they offer John a place in their village in exchange for his help. Though initially cold to the Insiders’ proposal, John soon finds himself joining them in their fight against the Outsiders, as well as helping them attempt to escape the island.
For a movie that has so much in the way of raw story, No Escape is surprisingly dreary to get through. The pacing is unforgivably sluggish, with the narrative spending so much time simply laying its groundwork that the stakes don’t become clear until halfway through the movie. Equally sloppy is the plot itself, which is easy to follow but far from seamless. On several occasions, characters’ actions are motivated solely by the need to get to the next plot development. This manifests most glaringly as otherwise-intelligent villains – especially the warden – briefly becoming total idiots so the heroes can have a fighting chance.
It’s a shame that No Escape suffers from such crippling plot issues, because it’s not without potential. Though clearly made on a relatively modest budget, it has fun with its set design, especially the pseudo-medieval aesthetic of the Insiders’ village. And the ensemble cast is a B-Movie dream team, populated by the likes of Lance Henriksen, Ernie Hudson, Kevin Dillon, and more, all of whom are dependably solid as the key Insiders. Liotta, the only true movie star of the bunch, does fine in the unchallenging lead role, his crazy-eyed intensity perfect for the chronically rebellious John. The villains, however, don’t fare as well: Lerner spends most of the movie hunched over computer screens, while Wilson gets the lion’s share of the screenplay’s worst dialogue. Perhaps because of this, he also gives the movie’s silliest – and most knowing – performance.
But regardless of the acting talent on display, there’s no escaping the fact that the cast is comprised entirely of familiar types. In schlocky movies like this, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; when done right, it can even be an asset. But making these human clichés come alive demands a certain panache on the part of the filmmakers, and in this case it’s just not there. The longer No Escape goes on, the more obvious it becomes that its characters are nothing more than pawns to push the story forward, lifeless husks being forced to go through the motions. After watching this movie, I could sympathize.