EMOTIONS OVERRULE good sense in Roger Donaldson's "No Way Out." The film makes such good use of Washington and builds suspense so well that it transcends a plot bordering on ridiculous.
The Pentagon is the arena. Kevin Costner, in his best performance so far, plays Lt. Cdr. Tom Farrell, a naval officer assigned to newly appointed Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman). It's a dream assignment -- a high-profile job within commuting distance of a steamy Washington affair he has just started. But he gets caught up in a double-edged mission that threatens everything.
Screenwriter Robert Garland marries detective pulp with the sophisticated high intrigue of such Washington-based dramas as "All The President's Men" and "Three Days of the Condor." There's a mysterious woman (Sean Young), a man in love with her (Costner), and a murder. Then Donaldson lays in all the local landmarks -- unseen forces behind bureaucratic walls; ambitious, unscrupulous officials; and, of course, clandestine sex.
But the plot (detail would spoil its surprise elements) ties in only incidentally with the high-powered backdrop. The characters get involved in a rather mundane, civilian crime -- they just happen to be plugged into Washington. (Garland, in fact, transposed Kenneth Fearing's '50s "The Big Clock" -- a pulpy murder mystery set in the New York publishing world.) The Watergate-type conspiracy you're conditioned to expect never quite happens. Garland adds a political kicker to the story, as if to compensate, but it's a narrative fifth wheel.
The strength of "No Way Out" is in the way it continually ups the ante, Hitchcock-style. Complications beget complications. People stand to lose something all the time. And just about everyone's got a dark side. The trouble starts when Farrell meets Susan Atwell (Young), a sexy woman slinking around at an inaugural party, and they have a limousine encounter the chauffeur will always remember. What follows is shadowy intrigue. Farrell will be torn between love, duty and survival. He will be chased by two American thugs (fresh from death-squad duty in El Salvador) and find himself head-to-head with the Pentagon itself. By the end of it, his Navy uniform will be very dirty.
The acting roles are limited; the characters are pawns in Donaldson's and Garland's game of intrigue and deceit ("Deceit" was actually the film's original title). Nevertheless, Costner is forceful and energetic as Farrell, with a steely-eyed intensity that gives dimension to his football-captain good looks. Sean Young, who was the replicant object of Harrison Ford's affections in "Blade Runner," plays Atwell with a lithe, spacey sex appeal. Hackman, possibly Hollywood's most consistent performer, does what he can. And Howard Duff plays Hackman's sidekick, Scott Pritchard, with one-note but memorable maliciousness. The cinematographer, the late John Alcott (this was his last picture), gives the film its most telling image: an airborne, traveling shot that starts with the Capitol, pulling back over the Mall, past the Pentagon and into the suburbs of Virginia -- where the story begins and ends. It describes the architectural spokes of power in a way words cannot, a perfect visual metaphor for the tale about to unfold. NO WAY OUT (R) --
At area theaters.