Before being recognized as the megastar we know today, Russell Crowe was a popular Australian actor, earning serious notoriety after his terrifying portrayal of the neo-Nazi skinhead Hando in the much underrated 'Romper Stomper'. In fact, the role marks the beginning of a long award-winning career as a leading man. To make his American debut, he starred in four movies that barely made a dent at the box office. Two of those have since gained a cult following ('The Quick and the Dead' and 'Virtuosity'). But the other two . . . Well, let's just say they live up to the adage that some things are better left forgotten. Or dead, as this case may be.
One of them is somehow, and even thankfully, still wandering in DVD limbo, probably lying at the very bottom of the bargain bin in Wal-Mart. 'Rough Magic' co-stars Bridget Fonda and carries all of the roughness but none of the magic. The other movie has suddenly resurfaced from the depths and will most likely haunt Crowe's career as a joke rather than complement it. This is really not the kind of material that displays the promise of a talented actor. It's obviously a foot-in-the-door with a paycheck.
'No Way Back' is the sort of straight-to-video flick that not only carries a familiar ring to its title, but also caters so strongly to the conventions of its genre that it's practically unwatchable. Predicting the inevitable train wreck by reading the synopsis won't impress your friends, but it might earn you some points with the psychic hotline. They're always looking for people to point out the obvious. Crowe plays FBI agent Zack Grant with the typical surliness of every other cop-hero we've seen before, even down to this being his last bust that could salvage his tarnished career. Gee, I really need a blow-by-blow breakdown of where that will end up, slick.
The clear winner at amateur night, the convoluted plot is simply a series of contrived situations that come off as laughable rather than serious or exciting. From Yakuza assassins in helicopters to neo-Nazi skinheads suddenly turned organized crime syndicate and even a hijacked 747 making an emergency landing, I'm almost convinced the movie's meant as farce rather than straight action. The only thing missing here is the requisite gratuitous sex scene and beautiful women dressed in bikinis with guns that weigh more than they do. Frank A. Cappello's script (he also directs and later penned 'Constantine') even throws some emotional baggage on his protagonist's shoulders for good measure - which, by the way, we learn via a flashback triggered by the "Fasten Your Seatbelt" sign. How are the two even related?
Failing to live up to its tagline: "Revenge is Redemption", the movie tries to start off with a bang. Things kick off with an undercover stakeout turned assassination, as a skinhead leader (Ian Ziering) who looks suspiciously much like Steve Sanders of 'Beverly Hills 90210' but with lots of tattoos is gunned down with his pants off. Sadly, the scene is quickly undermined by a ridiculous gunfight involving Miss Teen USA 1985 (Kelly Hu) and one of the phoniest car explosions ever devised. Why this is even taking place remains a mystery until the leader of the aforementioned Yakuza (Etsushi Toyokawa) is finally introduced. And what should at least create some interest turns out to be what the audience already knows.
Tagging along for the tedious ride is an overzealous flight attendant (Helen Slater), who I gather is suppose to be some kind of comic relief but is embarrassingly reduced to utterly stupid lines like "Please fasten your seat belts" after a major shootout and failed to crack a smile on this audience member's face. The actress will be familiar to anyone who's watched enough straight-to-video rubbish, but even this deservedly forgotten actioner is not the highlight of her career. That unfortunate honor goes to her role as Kara/Linda Lee in 'Supergirl', where she would shown some promise had she not done the movie at all. Here, the same still holds true.
Pouring more salt on this writhing slug is a limited budget that becomes more evident as the movie crawls to its death. Set pieces are used and reused and reused again. How can you not laugh at a movie that recycles old props from far superior films, like the plastic gun of 'In the Line of Fire'. If we're not inside an apartment or on a boat, then we're in the desert guns-a-blazing and transporting a possibly innocent Yakuza boss who unsuccessfully picks at his handcuffs. For some strange reason there's also an alley in Los Angeles where the FBI agent walks with his son, but doesn't seem to think it remotely creepy or dangerous. And lest we forget, there's the warehouse surrounded by clear plastic garbage bags hanging from the ceiling, which is apparently an FBI office. Now, that really adds the perfect touch to any quality film.
Everything about this "action" piece is flat out awful. Its only redeeming feature is in the fact that I made it through to the end. Hence, the high score. There was probably more action in the hotel room during Russell Crowe's temper tantrum than in the 90-minutes that make up 'No Way Back'. This is the kind of mess that usually ruins a career, but by some miracle, Crowe was able to make his way back and become the great actor we admire today. Now, let us forget about this trudge and move on to better efforts.
As dreadful as 'No Way Back' is, I half expected the video to be its equal. Turns out, this transfer, using the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encode (1.85:1), is not completely terrible, but it's also not near the quality we've come to expect of the Blu-ray format.
Looking very much like an upconverted DVD, a light veneer of film grain washes over the image and is surprisingly consistent, even in low-lit sequences. Contrast and brightness levels fall on the lower end of the grayscale, creating a generally flat picture. Only a few scenes display some decent quality and convincing depth. Skin tones can be warm and natural, but are oftentimes flushed and sickly. Details and clarity are a bit erratic, with some scenes looking fairly sharp and well-defined. Other scenes appear soft and poorly resolved with background objects lost in the shadows. Colors aren't very exciting, but they're rendered accurately. As a whole, the video presentation is about average, but better than expected.
Sony Home Entertainment releases this mercifully forgotten gem with a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that sounds mostly flat and anemic for an action flick.
The sound design is clearly limited, with hardly any surround activity to speak of, but those few localized effects sound more obvious than they do immersive. The front-heavy mix does take advantage of the soundstage with some respectable separation and a suitable balance of the channels. However, that's about the only highlight, as dynamics are poorly rendered and offer very little definition. Although dialogue is mostly intelligible, it also sounds listless and unnatural, like something straight out of a recording studio. Low-frequency effects are greatly - even hugely - lacking, as gunshots feel like twenty-five cent firecrackers and massive explosions sound phonier than they already look. For an action movie, this lossless track falls well below average.
The real surprise here is that Sony even offers any bonus material at all. Then again, none of the following features are in any way related to the movie at hand. So, "Why even bother?" is what I'm thinking. But as measly as the package is, you gotta give it to them for even trying.
The only point of interest associated with 'No Way Back' is the fact that Russell Crowe's career did not fulfill the movie's title. Everything else about this flick is simply terrible. The Blu-ray edition arrives with a throwaway package of supplements and an average A/V presentation. It won't be long before this forgotten movie joins the same bargain bin as Crowe's other secret shame, 'Rough Magic'. 'No Way Back' is definitely one to avoid.