No Escape Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: October 18, 2022
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; English and French LPCM 2.0
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French
Run Time: 118:05 minutes
Director: Martin Campbell
The year is 2022. John Robbins (Ray Liota), a former Marine captain, has been sentenced for assassinating his commanding officer and is banished to a secret and remote prison island run by The Warden (Michael Lerner). In this prison of the future, inhabited by society's most violent and feared criminals, Robbins is left to the mercy of the elements and his fellow man. (From Unearthed Classics’ official synopsis)
There’s a popular refrain among online film fans that goes “no one makes medium budget (insert genre here) movies anymore.” While this isn’t entirely true, medium budget action movies do tend to go straight to streaming these days, where they are lost in a sea of content. Medium budget action of the ‘90s might have been forgotten among the shelves of the video store in the long run, but, in 1994, movies like Martin Campbell’s No Escape still got a full promotional roll-out. No Escape (aka: Escape from Absolom outside of the US) is officially based on Richard Herley’s 1987 novel The Penal Colony (not to be confused with Franz Kafka’s short In the Penal Colony from 1914), but its concept – a dystopian island penal colony – is generic enough to have possibly drawn inspiration from several other sources. Some critics have noted similarities to Robert A. Heinlein's short story Coventry (pub. 1940) and larger-scale science fiction, like Robert Sheckley’s The Status Civilization (pub. 1960) and Frank Herbert’s The Dosadi Experiment (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1977). Of course, jailbreak stories go back to classic literature, like Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (pub. 1844), and include popular military prison camp movies, like Jean Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion (1937) and John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963), all sources that inform science fiction variants, like No Escape.
The main influence most viewers would recognize is John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), a film that, along with George Miller’s Mad Max (1979), basically defined the look of all dystopian action movies going forward. Other probable influences include Stuart Gordon’s Fortress (1992), about an underground futuristic prison, and Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man (1987), specifically the first act, which sees Arnold Schwarzenegger and friends attempting to escape a futuristic prison. No Escape was filmed in the jungles of Queensland, though, giving it a Lord of the Flies flavor and sets it apart from the ruined cities and hi-tech settlements of those other films. Having been shot in Australia by a New Zealand-born director, it also technically counts as an Ozploitation movie, but, sadly, outside of its graphic violence, it has little in common with the other Aussie-made dystopian prison classic, Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Turkey Shoot (aka: Escape 2000 and Blood Camp Thatcher, 1982). No Escape is definitely derivative stuff, but it has enough of its own flavor and enough technical expertise behind the camera to sustain itself.
Campbell was still a relative unknown in 1994, at least in Hollywood, having worked in British sex comedies and overlooked legal thrillers. Following No Escape, which was slightly profitable, he was handed the keys to the James Bond franchise for the Pierce Brosnan reboot, GoldenEye (1995). Following two hit Zorro movies – Mask of Zorro (1998) and The Legend of Zorro (2005) – and mountain climbing thriller Vertical Limit (2000), he was once again asked to reboot 007 for the Daniel Craig era with Casino Royale (2006). A few high profile flops aside (Beyond Borders  and Green Lantern ), Martin was and remains a stalwart directing workhorse, one who understands cinematic action better than most modern day blockbuster filmmakers. Even his blandest movies, like the aforementioned Vertical Limit and 2010’s Edge of Darkness, feature crisp and clean action scenes.
As his first foray into Hollywood science fiction territory, No Escape exhibits the important hallmarks of his future hits – even overcoming some lackluster fight choreography with tightened editing, but still has the gritty edge of a mid-’90s movie that was angling for an R-rating. There are some truly remarkable crane shots, low-angle dollies, and large-scale battle sequences that, dollar-for-dollar, match anything major studios were capable of producing at the time (for comparison, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, released the following year, cost $65-$70 million, against No Escape’s $20 million). There are also insanely dangerous-looking stunts throughout the film, including a protracted full-body burn, falls from massive heights, an explosion that decimates the entire main set, and the villain’s show-stopping, gore-soaked tumble onto a giant wooden spike. As was the tradition coming out of the 1980s, it is almost as much a splatter movie as it is a sci-fi/action movie with some sequences being based entirely around the build up to a gory set-piece.
Perhaps the most unique thing about No Escape is that, in almost any other case, the lead would’ve been played by someone like Jean-Claude Van Damme. Maybe under the best circumstances and budget sizes, Kurt Russell or Kevin Costner. The late Ray Liotta did appear in other action movies throughout his career, but they tended to be cop flicks and other thrillers where he mostly stood still and shot at people. I don’t think he ever made another movie this physical and the fact that he doesn’t really change-up his typical style is a big asset, because he feels closer to an everyman than an action hero. He’s a gruff, hyper-capable everyman suffering from extreme PTSD, but definitely relatable. The cast also includes cult favorites Lance Henriksen (who had a smaller role in another sci-fi prison movie, David Fincher’s Alien 3, two years prior), Kevin J. O’Connor, and Ian McNeice in major roles, but the superstars are Ernie Hudson, fresh off a horrible experience making Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994), and Stuart Wilson as the scenery-chewing, sardonic head bad guy. Wilson and Campbell worked together twice more for Mask of Zorro and Vertical Limit.
Internationally, No Escape has had a healthy home video history, but, here in the US, it was only available digitally via a non-anamorphic DVD from HBO Home Video. In 2018, No Escape was first released on Blu-ray in Germany (via Nameless) and Australia (via Umbrella) and, based on the Pathé studio opening titles, I assume that Unearthed Films has utilized the same transfer for this stateside debut. So far, every Unearthed release I’ve seen was either a purposefully grimy source or film that was known for never having a good digital release, but this is a 35mm major theatrical release, so there’s plenty of room for the company to show off a bit. Overall, I can’t imagine No Escape looking much better outside of a massive 4K overhaul. Cinematography Phil Meheux’s photography is designed to appear dark and muted. Every scene takes place at night, in a dark room, or outdoors during an overcast day. Fortunately, the detail on this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer is sharp enough to boost the fine highlights and levels are well balanced enough that those drizzly days aren’t too washed out. A couple of the widest wide-angle shots have a twinge of edge enhancement, but there’s not a lot of other notable print damage and compression artifacts. Colors are, again, meant to be somber, but rich blacks and midtones help differentiate hues and the most important differences, like that between green jungles and red blood, are plenty clear.
No Escape was released in an era when digital surround was still gaining traction and analog was still the default. As one of the earlier Dolby Digital 5.1 releases, it’s a show-offy, though not exactly natural mix, full of environmental echo and directional overload. Their hearts were in the right place and I get kind of nostalgia-y for this kind of thing. Dialogue is neat and centered, and the discreet LFE adds some oomph without warbling-up the most bass-heavy sequences. Composer Graeme Revell’s big symphonic score (sometimes accented with corny slide guitar and piano) sounds particularly nice as it sits neatly in the stereo channels.
Welcome to the Future: The sci-fi worlds of Gale Anne Hurd (17:08, HD) – In the first of three brand new interviews, producer Gale Anne Hurd chats about her love of science fiction, her early career as production manager/assistant on Roger Corman movies, recognizing James Cameron’s value in the Corman days, then hooking up to make The Terminator movies, Aliens (1986), and more, striking out as a solo producer without Cameron, and the making of No Escape.
Survival of the Fittest: Directing No Escape (13:35, HD) – Director Martin Campbell (who skips over his pre-Hollywood career in the intro) chats about Hurd aggressively recruiting him, casting the film, working without a Schwarzenegger-sized budget (they ultimately had to dial the finale back), the Aussie locations and UK prison sets, planning action scenes, adding the villain’s gory ending after a producer decided it wasn’t violent enough (the same producer blamed Campbell when the film was released and critics said it was too violent), and No Escape getting him the James Bond job.
Penal Colony: Writing No Escape (9:46, HD) – Co-writer Joel Gross wraps up the exclusive extras with a quick rundown of his career as a novelist and playwright, Hurd hiring him as a screenwriter, and adapting Herley’s novel.
Alternate intro/credits (2:10, HD)
Making of Escape from Absolom (28:02, SD) – The original extended behind-the-scenes featurette.
Vintage EPK (6:20, SD)
Theatrical trailer and four TV spots
Unearthed Films trailer reel
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.