In a scene reminiscent of Clockwork Orange, a street gang beat an Asian man, who is sealed inside a cardboard box, to death, while a homeless man is helpless witness to the brutal murder. Next, Kelly Hu plays a hooker for an undercover Nikita-style role but doesn’t survive the shootout which she instigates, apparently in vengeance, and so the covert FBI ‘sting’ operation that she’s a key player in ends with tragedy…
The rather grim tone of these opening sequences creates a false impression for this exploitation picture, which is not really a serious drama concerning racist murders, but actually a rollicking chase thriller with plenty of amusing road-movie action. A roguish yet fairly heroic federal agent, Zack Grant (swaggering Russell Crowe; after his acclaimed skinhead role in Australia’s Romper Stomper; before his Hollywood breakthrough in L.A. Confidential), leads an FBI team into double-trouble, caught between the ambitious expansion plans of murderous yakuza – led by deceitful Yuji Kobayashi (Etsushi Toyokawa, 20th Century Boys), and the revenge strategy of an American mafia boss, bereaved Frank Serlano (Michael Lerner – never better than this, except for Barton Fink), who’s out for blood after the killing of his only son by Yuji’s doomed sister, Seiko (Kelly Hu, Stiletto, X-Men 2, Scorpion King).
Zack’s young son Eric (Andrew J. Ferchland, anointed vampire Collin in season two of Buffy TV show) is kidnapped by Serlano’s thugs. Although arrested by Zack, wily Kobayashi manages to hijack a 747 jet while he attempts to escape justice. After the plane’s emergency landing – well short of its destination, or any runway suitable for such a massive aircraft – No Way Back segues into its most entertaining chapters, partly a replay of Commando (1985), when Helen Slater delivers a great comic turn as the overly helpful and relentlessly-cheerful flight steward Mary, along for a wild ride, as Zack struggles to re-capture, and keep hold of, slippery fugitive Kobayashi.
Working around his other subgenre influences, from Midnight Run (1988), to Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet (1977), writer-director Frank Cappello (previously, maker of American Yakuza, starring Viggo Mortensen – years before he won iconic status in Lord Of The Rings) enables the wonderful Crowe and Slater comedic double-act that’s full of geeky dialogue and hilarious quips. This humour occasionally conflicts with the stylised gunfights, airborne tensions, and suspenseful intrigue, but there’s a noteworthy effort here to create a lively cult movie, where some randomly uneven vibes and shifts of mood can and should be viewed and accepted as quite beneficial, not detrimental, to our enjoyment of the film.
Yes, on the whole, No Way Back is unfortunately something less than the sum of its constituent parts. However, there are more than enough points of quirky interest or moments of great fun here to engage viewers’ attention and ensure that aficionados of oddball crime-wave adventures are quite willing or happy to overlook its niggling faults.