In which there is no escaping a thematically-confused script…
The year is 2022, and all penal colonies are now controlled by corporations. Or at least, that’s what the opening scroll tells us - the rest of No Escape isn’t terribly concerned with exploring the ramifications of such a world. Indeed, we learn very little about the future taking place within the film: a confused mess not without its merits, but still ultimately a mess in the end.
Ray Liotta plays Robbins, a former Marine now court-martialed for killing his superior officer. He’s already escaped from some of the highest-security prisons around, so he's sent to the highest level prison around, one where the most dangerous and least agreeable prisoners are sent to a remote island and forced to scrape together some sort of livelihood in the wilderness amongst tribes of warring cannibals. Why the wardens don’t just send all the prisoners to the island and forgo the whole “jail” thing is beyond me (and apparently beyond the filmmakers), but whatever. Robbins soon finds himself amidst the foliage, squaring off against a bunch of Cro-Magnon-esque, punk cannibals *.
The first thirty minutes of the film start off well enough. There is very little exposition - we experience every new twist of the plot much like Liotta’s character in the film does. The movie we think we’re going to see keeps changing things up, going from a futuristic prison to the cannibal-filled jungles. Director Martin Campbell did two of the better Bond movies (Goldeneye and Casino Royale) and has a sharp eye for good old-fashioned action/adventure, and Liotta’s first moments on the island are pretty thrilling - very Most Dangerous Game. Then he gets picked up by another group of prisoners fighting to stay alive on the island, and that’s where things start to get a bit wonky.
See, the cannibal army that was hunting Robbins before are called the “Outsiders,” and they’re led by the well-spoken Marek (Stuart Wilson, looking an awful lot like a Klingon). The other group of prisoners call themselves the “Insiders” - a far more peaceful and serene commune, although they’re not above sending a man to his death for falling asleep on guard-duty. Think of them as a kind of hippie totalitarian dictatorship. The Insiders are led by a man who only refers to himself as Father, played with the serene dignity that only Lance Henriksen could bring. Father and his Insiders are desperate to get off the island, due to the fact that the Outsiders often raid and pillage their serene community - something which appeals to Robbins, who's desperate to get back to the outside world.
And that’s the film’s biggest weakness: a lack of focus. Does it want to be a prison escape movie? A post-apocalyptic war film? A Campbellian “Refusing the Call” mythic hero story? The film can’t decide, and tries to be all at once, never giving each idea the proper room to breathe. Even worse, the film drags to a halt after the gripping opening once Robbins is taken in by the Insiders, and never really recovers its pace - going from rollicking to brake-screechingly slow in the blink of an eye. All of which would be more tolerable if there weren’t cliché after cliché thrown into the mix… Would it surprise you to learn there is a fresh-faced, idealistic young lad (played by Kevin Dillon) who idolizes Liotta’s character? Would it be considered a spoiler to tell you said idealistic young lad constantly gets himself in trouble for the sole purpose of being rescued by Liotta? Adding to the cliché pool is the mysterious back-story of the main character. The film keeps it a mystery for a good long while, and I kept hoping we would never really learn the particulars - the quick flashes we get at the beginning and intermittently throughout tell us all we need to know, but still Robbins gets his painfully on-the-nose revelatory monologue. The cast ** here does what they can with what they have, but there’s still only so much they can do.
It all looks pretty, and Campbell stages the action and stunts well enough, but No Escape never really finds its groove; in turn creating a movie that’s never all that compelling.
* The films of the 90’s were filled with such Road Warrior knock-offs. See: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Hook, Waterworld and at least a dozen more.
* I feel bad for not mentioning Ernie Hudson is in this, but that tells you just how important his character winds up being.