NO ESCAPE (1994): A Classic Ray Liotta Action Film B-Side is Resurrected

“You want it? Come and get it”

“I once was lost, but now I’m found” — No Escape (1994)

Did I just kick off this review with a (sacreligious?) quote from an anthropomorphized Blu-ray? Maybe. But don’t let that stop you from reading on about how MVD label Unearthed Classics has lived up to its name most righteously by releasing a film on US Blu-ray that was a not insignificant part of my 1990s film viewing diet, and which had gone largely unavailable in the decades since. Streaming absolutely nowhere, available in high definition only through an Australian Blu-ray, and even that only becoming a reality recently, No Escape is finally here in glorious high definition and packed with bonus features for a new generation to discover.

I’m not entirely sure how or why I saw No Escape so many times in the ’90s, but my gut is telling me that a friend had it on a VHS that he had taped off of HBO and we ended up watching it repeatedly on sleepovers at his place. I had some very strong memories of it, including the dreadlocked and pierced villain Marek (Stuart Wilson, who I’m now realizing I’ve undervalued my entire life… such charisma that guy has), and a sense that the levels of violence in the film were just off the charts. 1990s me took No Escape very seriously and remembered it being an icily-toned thriller. My memory only served me half well as Stuart Wilson’s villainous role is indeed a scenery chomping, rip-roaring tyrant that is absolutely deliciously delivered. But what I remembered as a deep dark film is actually filled with fun and humor and almost a swashbuckling vibe.

Taking place in the future hellscape year of 2022 in a reality ENTIRELY unlike our own current one in which corporations are making millions of dollars off of the privatization of prisons and exploiting convicts for profit, we meet Ray Liotta’s Capt. J.T. Robbins on his way to the dankest hellhole of them all, run with an iron fist by The Warden (Michael Lerner). One thing about No Escape is that it MOVES, gloriously so, and Robbins so thoroughly intimidates The Warden that he ends up banished to Absolom, an island prison that’s totally off the books and tracked by ultra high tech, but no guards. With a bit of a Mad Max meets Escape From New York vibe, the island has broken off into two camps with the totalitarian survival of the fittest camp called The Outsiders run by Marek. Robbins is first captured by them and within moments he’s already humiliated Marek, stolen the only gun on the island, and found his way to the other camp, The Insiders, run by the communally minded and somewhat messianic Father (Lance Henriksen). This complex world is introduced super cleanly and efficiently through the brash confidence of our Max-like broken lead character.

I think part of the reason I remembered No Escape as dark and serious might simply be because I wasn’t highly familiar at that time with a lead character like Robbins. Liotta is famous for bringing an unhinged dangerousness to so many of his characters, and Robbins is no different here. He’s cool and unreceptive to any attempts to welcome him into the fold. He’s dismissive of all power and authority and wants to be a lone wolf actor no matter who he has to piss off to stay that way. He’s just a mean son of a bitch. Of course I’m now able to see that as somewhat of an archetype, much in the vein of Max Rockatansky or Snake Plissken. And much like with those characters, some of the joy in watching No Escape is seeing this icy lead eventually cave in to his better angels and begin to become vulnerable, to care about his community, and to risk his own hide to topple the authority figures he hates the most.

Loaded with incredible practical, on location sets that were built and shot in Australia, No Escape looks fantastic and holds up well as a real-ass studio film filled to the brim with top tier acting talent (besides those actors already noted you’ve also got Kevin Dillon and Ernie Hudson in the mix as well here, among some other familiar character actors). Produced by the legendary Gale Anne Hurd, scored by Graeme Revell, and directed by none other than Martin Campbell (who credits this film with scoring him the Goldeneye gig, which then resulted in Casino Royale, the best 007 film of all). It’s somewhat of a mystery to me how a film with this many luminary talents and with such a mainstream appeal can have ended up relegated to being almost impossible to find until now.

Regardless, No Escape is a highly satisfying and energetic action epic that never feels bloated so much as efficient and lethal. Liotta wasn’t often cast in this kind of leading role as the full on hero, and he nails it top to bottom, with memorable moments like telling the Warden to “never turn your back on me again”, or when it’s just him standing off against Marek’s entire horde and screaming “You want it? Come and get it!” with the brash confidence of a New Jersey mobster. I’m not here to say No Escape is a masterpiece, but I think anyone looking to discover it for the first time thanks to its resurrection, or looking to revisit it, will find a special concoction of mid-90s sci-fi apocalyptic action that’s sure to entertain with its unique time capsule of a tale.

The Package

While the film largely looks and sounds great, I did notice a bit of “tinny” audio coming through in a couple of the scenes that featured the Dysart (Jack Shepherd) character, who is the inventor on the island. I’m not sure what was going on there, but that bit of janky audio seems to have made it all the way to the final disc somehow. It’s not catastrophic to the experience of watching the movie by any means, but it’s worth noting here in covering the disc.

While there’s not a commentary track to be found here, Unearthed Classics has partnered up with Ballyhoo Motion Pictures to generate a number of original featurettes for this release. There’s audio interviews with director Martin Campbell, producer Gale Anne Hurd, and co-writer Joel Gross. All of these are done in the style of cutting together film footage and stills over an audio-only interview. They’re honestly pretty good stuff, giving some insight and anecdotes without overstaying their welcome. There’s also some archival making of pieces and trailers and stills as well. I’d probably have loved a commentary track of some kind, but even without, this feels like MVD genuinely did us all a solid by bringing this underseen gem a new life for a new generation of home video devotees.

And I’m Out.

No Escape hits Blu-ray 10/18/22 from Unearthed Classics.

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