As you'll know from this morning, I regard "the Russia investigation" as the world's most interminable MacNuffin. Still, I thought for our Saturday movie date it might be appropriate to have a film on a related theme. I mentioned North by Northwest, in which some acronymic agency in Washington creates a fake American for Russians to go chasing around after, but we've already covered that. So here's a film in which the powers that be attempt to take an existing investigation into an unknown Russian spy and fit up poor old Kevin Costner for the role.
No Way Out opened in 1987 and thus belongs to the bloom of Costner's super-stardom. He had a rough time in the early Eighties: His character in The Big Chill was famously cut down to his funeral scene, so, if Kevin was doing any acting in that casket, nobody got to see it. His first hit was as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (1987), where he's tagging alongside Sean Connery and Robert De Niro. Young Costner appears rather bland next to those two great expressive faces, but that's the point: He's the good guy, and he looks it. No Way Out trades on that and catches the actor on his way up - to those idiosyncratic blockbusters Field of Dreams and Dances with Wolves. You'll recall that in Naked Gun 2┬Ż Leslie Nielsen has to go undercover at a sperm-donor clinic - all day - and, somewhat exhausted by his labors, is eventually asked by a kindly nurse if it would help to have the visual stimulation of a video. "Sure," he says, and requests Dances with Wolves. That's not a bad joke, but it applies even more to all the truly plonkingly portentous stuff Costner did after his Injun blockbuster - like those ludicrous, self-aggrandizing, over-inflated post-apocalyptic yawnfests Waterworld and The Postman. In the late Eighties, critics compared his laconic style to Gary Cooper, but Coop would never have said "Yup!" to ten per cent of what Kev did in the Nineties. He got old real fast, which is a great shame.
But he's beautiful here, working with a skilled director in Roger Donaldson; to a taut script by Robert Garland, and all under a much missed producer, Laura Ziskin, who would never have let him be buried, as he was within a decade, by the weight of his own pretensions. In No Way Out, Costner plays Lieutenant Commander Tom Farrell of the US Navy and, excepting the framing device, we first meet him in dress uniform. As in The Untouchables, the director is using Costner's wholesome good looks as shorthand for the good guy; the clothes radiate the glamour and glitter of a grand social occasion, but simultaneously convey that underneath the sheen is a man of duty and honor. Costner's character is in Washington to see his old college pal Scott (Will Patton), who's now an aide to the newly appointed Secretary of Defense. So Scott asks him along to the inaugural ball to impress him and with the intention of introducing him to his boss. When he does so, the Defense Secretary (Gene Hackman) sloughs him off. Many of us have had that experience with powerful Washington politicians: you're told so-and-so wants to meet you, only to find that after a perfunctory handshake he's looking over your shoulder at someone more important he needs to schmooze. Costner handles the rejection with a boyish, rueful amusement that's genial and beguiling.
And then he spots her: the girl. She's pretty, but real. The latter you can tell because, in contrast to Costner, she looks like she doesn't quite belong in that ball gown and long black gloves. Oh, everything fits in all the right places, but she rustles and walks in it as if she's someone whose milieu this isn't, not really. Her name is Susan, and, as we subsequently learn, she's the mistress of a married man. But, just for once, she doesn't want to end the evening either staring at the ceiling until the middle-aged unlovely lover is sated, or alone and empty in a kept woman's flat that can never be home. Susan is played by Sean Young, who had an attractive but slightly goofy mien including a lovely ski-snoot, as they used to say of Bob Hope. It should have been a breakout role, but she got a reputation for being "difficult" after being sued for harassment by James Woods, attempting to doorstep Tim Burton dressed in a homemade Catwoman outfit, and getting fired by Warren Beatty from Dick Tracy. Costner's Nineties were awful, but lavish and lucrative; Miss Young's were awful, without the compensations. Way back when, I heard her sing some Mitchell Parish songs for a revue. Afterwards, anxious to give credit where it's due, I told a Broadway producer that the show was terrible, but "Sean Young's pretty good." Alas, she was already forgotten. "Yeah, he's great. Always liked him," said the producer, sloughing me off like Gene Hackman does to Costner.
But Young and Costner have the sexual chemistry set bubbling over here. She's hungry and reckless, and he knows she's reckless but he's turned on. Impatient as teenagers, they make out in the limo, and she takes him to a girlfriend's apartment, booting out the chum, which ought to be the first clue to Costner that her domestic arrangements are potentially perilous. The two have a connection unlike any Costner managed with his female leads in the ensuing decade: look at him in Waterworld, where he's too much in love with himself to notice Jeanne Trippelhorn's standing naked in front of him.
Unfortunately for Susan, her lover is the Secretary of Defense - and, when the adulterer discovers that his mistress is likewise faithless, he flies into a jealous rage which, even more unfortunately for Susan, happens to occur at the top of the stairwell. Hackman's character goes to pieces, but his loyal aide Scott is there to clean up the mess. There are really two love stories in No Way Out - the navy man's for Susan, and the homosexual Scott's unrequited adoration of his boss. Will Patton plays the loyal, loving aide with a psychotic glee that grows ever more deranged as the picture progresses. It is he who comes up with the idea of co-opting the Pentagon's hunt for a Soviet mole called "Yuri" and framing Susan's unknown other lover as the Russian spy. He then asks Costner to take over the "Yuri" investigation, meaning the innocent man is in charge of convicting himself.
From hereon in, the star's simply reacting to ever tighter plot twists, and Costner's always at his best when he's most relaxed. So it's not one of those roles that lets you take charge of a movie, as Dances with Wolves and Waterworld did, to varying effect. But he's helped by a splendid cast, including Howard Duff in one of his last roles, as a wily senator, and Senator-to-be Fred Thompson in one of his first, as a plausibly cynical CIA director. There are, of course, the familiar conventions of the genre - chases and whatnot - but they seem to arise organically from the plot's labyrinthine logic. Oddly, on more recent viewings, the scenes that most irritate me are the ones that seemed most up-to-the-minute in 1987: A very blurry picture has been taken of Costner, from which he cannot be identified. But the Pentagon has a crackerjack computer wizard who's able to use the latest technology to convert it into a high-resolution image. The only drawback is that this takes a zillion hours, during which we keep cutting back to the blurry image slowly becoming ever less pixilated.
And my other great quibble is the extra-final O Henry plot twist, which is probably structurally necessary but which I'm never quite sure I buy. On the other hand, it would certainly perk up no end the current "Russia investigation".
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