Monday, June 6, 2011

Gamer's Movie Review: No Escape (1994)

I saw the trailer for this movie when it came out, but never managed to catch it in theaters or elsewhere until this week when it popped up on Netflix.  Part prison movie, part post-apocalyptic survival movie, part redemption movie, No Escape was a surprisingly good flick, especially for a wargamer's perspective.

The year is 2022, and the world's prison systems have been completed turned over to corporations.  Cpt. J.T. Robbins (Ray Liotta) is an ex-special forces soldier sentenced to life in prison for killing his superior officer in a glorious bit of cinematography in the opening credits.  Deemed both too dangerous and politically sensitive for a regular facility, Robbins is sent to Absolom, a secret penal colony located on a tropical island.  The island is divided into two communities: a fairly civilized commune of about one hundred prisoners led by a benevolent, messianic figure called "the Father" (Lance Henriksen), and six hundred brutal savages living deep in the jungle led by Marek (Stuart Wilson).  The savage prisoners regularly raid the primitive fort that the other prisoners have set up, but Robbin's presence serves as a catalyst for bringing the conflict between the two factions to a head.

The movie is, as I said, a lot like your typical prison flick.  There's the big tough black guy (Ernie Hudson), the doomed kid (Kevin Dillon), the sadistic warden (Michael Lerner) and the shifty scrounger (Kevin J. O'Connor, whom it took me about half the flick to finally put together was "Benny" from The Mummy).  But it is also very close to a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story, with the scratch-built armor and primitive weapons and the one, single firearm on the island.  But what really makes the movie stand out is the deliberate attempt to develop some sense of depth beyond the basic plot.  Liotta's plays Robbins as barely holding onto his sanity and a good part of the story is his refusal to accept the hospitality and support of the Father's commune.  The movie's script takes the time to put quite a bit of humanity into the characters so you appropriately sympathize with the prisoners who are seeking redemption and a new life, even as they can never escape the island.

If there is one sour note to the movie it is Wilson's depiction the charismatic yet violent leader of the savages.  Wilson chews the scenery with a lot of hammy over-acting that made me check that in fact 1994 was when Jim Carrey was exploding into the Hollywood scene.  He could have toned it down just a notch or two and come across as a truly sinister sadist, rather than tap his Shakespearean acting roots and gone for the bombastic, broad gesturing stuff.

Now from a wargamer's perspective, what I liked about the movie was the whole post-apocalyptic big siege battles that appear regularly in the film in a great bit of futuristic low-tech fun, but not taking place in the arid, lifeless landscape so common to the genre.  The island is beautiful from afar, but fetid and rat-infested within, a great metaphor for the dystopic outside world (which Henriksen at one point dryly points out might just be worse than Absolom).  The jungle makes a great place for mud-daubed psychos to jump out you, rather than being seen from miles away across the sand dunes.

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