*** (A must-see)

Directed by Roger Donaldson

Written by Robert Garland

With Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Sean Young, and Will Patton.

Remakes have become almost as ruinous a plague in recent years as the sequelitis epidemic that set in during the 70s. Watching them is usually an unhappy experience for reviewers and audiences alike. Reviewers know (or should know) the originals, and resent the appropriation of earlier filmmakers’ triumphs. Because most remakers bring scant inspiration of their own to a project, have only the most facile notions how to “update” or “Americanize” their borrowed material, and often fundamentally fail to understand what made the original work in the first place, audiences too wind up feeling bilked and disappointed. They may not know that what they’ve just watched was once done gloriously right, by somebody else, years ago. They have little trouble discerning that it’s now been done wrong.

No Way Out, the latest movie from New Zealand-born director Roger Donaldson, is an interesting and pleasurable exception to this debilitating syndrome. Taken on its own terms, it’s one of the few respectable entertainments available this summer season–indeed, the classiest thriller of the year. But it also happens to be a remake with a difference. Even reviewers aren’t likely to worry overmuch about that; the source isn’t some vintage masterpiece (Stagecoach, Scarface, To Be or Not to Be) but two other respectable entertainments, Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock and John Farrow’s 1948 film thereof. In strictest terms, No Way Out isn’t so much a remake as a thoroughgoing contemporary adaptation of Fearing’s and Farrow’s stylish work. As such, its strengths and limitations afford glimmering insights into the nature of adaptation and the shifting dynamics of Hollywood story telling from the 40s to the 80s.

The Big Clock, book and film, is a silky 1940s artifact that dispenses intrigue and innuendo with three-martini gaiety for about a third of its length, then locks into a diabolical trap as ironclad as it is ornate. Ray Milland edits a popular crime magazine that specializes in solving true-life mysteries the police can’t unravel. When his tyrannical publisher, Charles Laughton, tries to interfere in Milland’s personal life once too often, our hero quits his job flat. He’s supposed to be going on a long-postponed honeymoon (with his wife of five years!), but he misses his train and, one thing leading trippingly to another, spends the evening in more or less innocent revelry with an available lady.

Unbeknownst to him, she’s the boss’s mistress. When Laughton spies Milland–without recognizing him–leaving her apartment, he goes in and murders the woman in a jealous rage. His chief lieutenant (George Macready) persuades Laughton not to turn himself in, but rather to use the resources of his publishing empire to identify the unknown interloper and fix the blame on him. Milland is pressed into service and given the assignment of chasing himself into a corner.

Very sensibly, No Way Out keeps faith with Fearing’s honey of a plot, but reimagines its particulars sufficiently to merit a “screen story and screenplay” credit for Robert Garland. Out with the New York smart-set milieu and the sleek, triumph-of-Paramount-art-direction publishing office tower that served as the increasingly claustrophobic locus of The Big Clock’s final reels. In with present-day Washington, D.C., the Pentagon, and enough ambient paranoia and internecine gamesmanship to make Fritz Lang green with envy.

Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner), a captain in naval intelligence, picks up a sassy young Washington wanton named Susan (Sean Young) at a reception one evening, has an inaugural ball with her in a limo, and ships out the next morning for lengthy sea duty. When an act of heroism lands him in the newspapers, David Brice (Gene Hackman), the Machiavellian secretary of defense, decides he could use such an earnest glamour boy to help him play capital politics, and has him whisked back to D.C. Farrell resumes his romance, and only later discovers that the shadowy figure paying the rent on Susan’s Georgetown house is none other than, etc, etc.

Garland’s new screen story markedly extends the time span (from a couple of days and nights to six months) and physical range of the original, and provides myriad peripheral complications. These include defense secretary Brice’s running duel with a corn-pone senator (Howard Duff) over financing a “phantom sub”; the senator’s publicly paraded connivance with the head of the CIA (Fred Dalton Thompson); and the inspiration of Brice’s personal assistant (Will Patton in the George Macready part) not only to frame Brice’s amorous rival as Susan’s killer, but to ensure his immediate liquidation as “Yuri”–a purported KGB mole in the Pentagon whose very existence is probably the stuff of rumor.

Such a synopsis may suggest that No Way Out stumbles over the more-is-less fallacy, loading up a tautly tellable, Old Hollywood suspense property with unnecessary baggage. Happily, Garland never lets any of his capital complications develop into full-fledged subplots, but uses them to raise the ante and escalate the pressure on each of the players in the central suspense game. For his part, Roger Donaldson directs the maneuvering so briskly, No Way Out occasionally gives off an air of heightened political science-fiction reminiscent of his fine, neglected feature debut, Sleeping Dogs (which, with his subsequent Smash Palace, put New Zealand cinema on the map).

A lot of the shifts in tone, rhythm, and emphasis from The Big Clock to No Way Out parallel differences in life-style and fictional convention between the periods of the two films. Ray Milland got into trouble by way of a classic 40s one-false-step ploy (Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window is the definitive model): he and the woman he spent the evening with didn’t really do anything–they just fell into circumstance and the circumstance bloomed into chesslike dilemma. Tom Farrell and Susan Atwell do plenty (“rutting like crazed weasels,” to borrow a deathless line from Sleuth). Garland and Donaldson allow their two comely yuppies to accumulate some mutual history, enough that their casually hedonistic coupling might credibly evolve into something more. Hence, when Farrell is called upon by Brice (in a beautifully directed scene) to be “front man” in the cover-up/investigation of Susan’s murder, he’s not only desperate, as Milland was, to extricate himself from a trap, but emotionally devastated. To Garland and Donaldson’s great credit, this devastation remains all but unspoken of during the final reels. To Kevin Costner’s greater credit, we never lose touch with it.

Some things don’t remain unspoken in No Way Out. On one level, The Big Clock was a colossal homosexual jape, rife with cheerful misogyny, bitchy male jealousy, and barely disguised master-slave games. Such things couldn’t be bruited about openly–and it wouldn’t have been half as much fun to do so. Film noir directors knew how to code their material, and actors like Laughton and Macready were past masters at conveying hidden psychosexual agendas. In the new film, Will Patton (the albino hit man in Desperately Seeking Susan) maintains a crisp, bright-eyed avidness through his early scenes as Scott Pritchard, Brice’s devoted aide; but once the boss man starts coming unraveled after his clumsy crime of passion and Pritchard takes effective charge of the cover-up (and other defense affairs as well), Patton goes over the top in an orgy of behavioral coloratura. (One astonishing moment is judiciously muted by Donaldson, who pushes the camera in and reduces the frame space as Pritchard, bending over Brice’s desk and proposing the cover-up strategy, begins to buck his hips against the air.)

To be fair, Patton/Pritchard’s escalating hysteria is crucial to the payoff of the climactic scene, when the truth of Susan’s murder is about to go off like a bomb and there’s no telling whom the shrapnel will take out. Then too, Donaldson clearly elected a risky strategy in No Way Out, to push the increasingly hectic action, the convergence of threat upon threat, courting giddy excess and making that a factor in raising the tension level of the film. This tactic is at once subtler, more modern, and more dangerous than the urbane sort of humor that informs both Fearing’s and Farrow’s Big Clocks (which so openly invite conspiratorial chuckles that they should almost be billed as suspense comedies rather than thrillers).

Unlike most remakes, No Way Out’s contemporaneity tends to enhance the movie’s interest and effectiveness, rather than compromise it. Indeed, in that fascinating way that movies have, of seeming to make themselves as much as they are made, Garland’s screen story now reverberates with unanticipatable suggestiveness in the immediate aftermath of Ollie North, Poindexter, Casey, and the Iran-contra brouhaha. This is not to say that No Way Out’s political consciousness cuts any deeper than the glib cynicism with which Susan Atwell responds to the fatuous inaugural festivities in the first scene of the film proper. The movie doesn’t draw meaning from the latest-breaking version of Washington reality, but it does draw mystique–the mystique of “cover-up,” “front man,” “protection from full knowledge,” of executives to whom “the normal rules don’t apply” and idolatrous minions who abet and then take unto themselves powers of monstrous distortion. At that level of privileged play, which is one of the movie’s most appealing and exciting qualities, such vibrant affinity for mystique is quite enough.

Since Kevin Costner was obliged, and honorably acceded to the obligation, to play the hero of The Untouchables as a comparatively colorless bureaucrat, his emergence as a certified movie star will be marked by his forceful, and richly ambiguous, performance in No Way Out. Gene Hackman does a beautiful job of establishing David Brice as the sort of glacial monster who can pontifically remind a subordinate that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, then mutter “Let’s go” before the man has had a chance to open his menu. But the script sidelines him in the latter phase of the film, and the mise-en-scene, unlike that of The Big Clock, doesn’t fill the void. In the earlier film, Charles Laughton was a dominant presence even when offscreen, because the big clock of the title, the symbolic and architectural center of his tower, testified to his continuing centrality to the film’s universe. The Pentagon serves admirably as the biggest rat’s maze in the world, but it does not seem to emanate from, or testify to the power of, the secretary of defense. Lastly, No Way Out is framed (as was The Big Clock) as a flashback narrative. It ends with a whopper of a twist that not only snaps one’s head around on first viewing, but makes a second viewing compelling and fascinating in a whole new way.