"You have come here from all over the world because society has no further use for you. The international prison system has given up all hopes of your rehabilitation. This place will now be your holding pen untill your death. Because death is the only way out. There is no chance of reprieve here, No possibility of escape. You are condemned. Either accept it or die!"
So says the Warden in the opening scenes of 1994's futuristic prison colony action adventure, shortly before Robbins (Ray Liotta) pisses him off and winds up somewhere a lot worse...
The '90s was fond of prison movies that didn't quite work out for the best. Before going on to be considered one of the greatest movies ever made, The Shawshank Redemption flopped at the box office. There was also the Christopher Lambert sci-fi shocker Fortress, which remains largely forgotten or unknown. Tales of oppression, violence and the fight for freedom are often very popular today, so who knows why Shawshank or the likes of No Mercy AKA Ecape From Absolom didn't do so well in 1994. Maybe it had something to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, maybe it had something to do with the LA riots and the murder of Rodney King. Maybe it was just a case of shitty marketing at a time when relatively fuck all else was happening at the cinema...
No Escape stars Ray Liotta and a rare mix of classic English actors and US sci-fi/horror genre favourites, most of who were either already well established or rising through the ranks at the time. Liotta stars as Robbins, an ex-special forces soldier imprisoned after he executes his commanding officer in the middle of a parade. Why he does this? Well he's not much of a talker, at least in the movie's first half. In the future, the world's most dangerous criminals are, for all intents and purposes, are far removed from society and essentially taken off the grid for the rest of their lives. They go to the superprison run by the man known only as The Warden (Michael Lerner - X-Men: Days of Future Past, Godzilla), a smug twerp with no intention of hiding the fact that he really loves his position of power. You see, when you no longer exist, neither do human rights, naturally!
When Robbins fails to fall in with the rest of the savage inmates and threatens the life of the Warden, he is sent to the hidden island of Absolom, the nightmare of even the most brutal prisoners, where he finds himself caught between two warring factions. There are the Outsiders, soon to be led by the psychotic yet hilarious Marek (seriously one of the greatest villains in history played by Hot Fuzz's resident doctor Stuart Wilson), and then there is the gated village run by the benevolent Father, played by none other than one of the era's greatest character actors, Lance Henriksen.
After severely pissing off Marek, Robbins kills a few Outsiders in his escape to relative freedom and lives to talk about it. Unfortunately for the Father and his people, Robbins doesn't want to talk about it. Also unfortunately for what is clearly the movie's good faction, Robbins has also stolen the island's only weapon of mass destruction (which Marek will raise hell for), and as the Warden likes to watch from his own private satellite TV network, he also likes to favour the Outsiders with supply drops and by generally making life harder on the heroes.
Aside from the adult Lord of the Flies context of No Escape, and the insane stunt action and fireworks (the have REAL FIRE!!!), undoubtedly the greatest thing about this movie is the cast committed to the Father's community. Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson, Kevin J. O'Connor, Kevin Dillon and then British greats Don Henderson, Ian McNiece and Jack Sheperd make you not want Marek to come and kill everybody, but damn do they try their hardest.
Part of you feels that Marek isn't seriously going to come marauding out of the woods and slay the good folk just working hard at redeeming themselves, repenting of their past crimes and making a living for themselves. He's not all crazy and murderous, he's so enjoyably comic-book crazy and provides a great deal of the movie's comic relief to contrast the upsetting scenes of Robbins coming to terms with why he's so fucked up and why he shot his CO in the face. But, yeah, no, Marek really does want to kill everyone though and if it weren't for Robbins and his mad fighting skills, that wouldn't be so difficult.
Marek isn't the only problem for Robbins, either, after all he could survive in the wilderness and evade capture with his training and experience. What bothers Robbins is that he's set on escaping and he sees that the likes of impressionable young kid Casey (Kevin Dillon) cannot survive in such a world. He wants to find a way to expose the island and help everybody regain their freedom, but the Father doesn't see that as an option.
Tribes of psychos and cannibals wanting to kill and eat you, little fat smug twerps treating you and your buddies like their own personal game of Warhammer 40,000, slop for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Kevin Dillon wanting to be your friend; these are a few reasons Robbins states as a case to get the fuck outta Absolom, whereas the Father, who is clearly in his twilight years, is more set on helping him find peace and redemption. Naturally, the finely crafted drama attempts to take the best of both worlds and does it nicely. See for yourself, but this movie fucking rocks in so many ways. Liotta makes for a great action star, but he's not alone. The war scenes kinda look at Lord of the Rings and say "aww, CGI orks, how cute, we actually just tried to kill each other for real!"
There are very few cons to No Escape. There's no time to watch it that would seem inappropriate. I mean, it's essentially a summer movie, but there's even a Christmas scene in there. Tropical island Christmasses, don't knock them until you've tried it and a bunch of savages ruined it by killing your midget. All I can complain about is the cheapness of a few of the opening scenes at the super-prison. I wondered how many seconds it would take to dig through the polystyrene walls with my fingers and escape to victory, such is the minimalism of that particular set design, but the rest is just peachy.
The only other problem (only if you make it a problem, really) is that there are no women in this movie. It's an all-male prison and an all-male colony. Not that there's surprise buttsex happening all over this show, there isn't. In fact, wait a minute, there are women come to think of it. Silhouettes in flashbacks of war being flash-fried with napalm. And despite many scenes of violence, death, war and grizzly old men in badly sewn clothes, No Escape is relatively safe for younger audiences. There's hardly any swearing and a lot of violence is suggestive, if not executed in a comic fashion. Did I mention that Marek is funny as fuck?
Thanks for reading, feel free to drop us a comment and watch this space for another classic feature later in the week!