Friday, April 17, 2009

Escape from Absolom (USA, 1994)

Based on Richard Herley's novel The Penal Colony, this shot-in-Australia programmer is a fun, hormonally driven thriller that entertains well on its first viewing but tends to fall apart structurally upon a second viewing or under any serious consideration. But since films like this aren't meant to be message films and exist solely to entertain, who cares if the story doesn't hold water as long as it is well made – and technically, this film is on top.
Director Campell finally gained some real attention in Hollywood with this movie and was given the first Pierce Brosnan James Bond flick GoldenEye (1995/trailer) as his next project. (That movie is just a good a ride and easily has ten times as many holes in the story but no one seems to mind – so why should we let the flaws in Escape from Absolom bother us?) Campell, who also lensed the last Bond revamp Casino Royal (2006/trailer), has come a long way from his early roots in England, his first directorial jobs there being a string of early softcore sex comedies, one of which, The Sex Thief (1973), got released in the USA as a hardcore film, the explicit in & out and money shots having all been added by the distributor. Of his early jiggler films, the best known is probably Eskimo Nell (1975), which was once re-released on Medusa Videos as a trash classic of mid-seventies British exploitation. Supposedly based on an anonymously written Victorian erotic poem entitled Eskimo Nell, the movie tells the tale of some filmmakers called in by smut peddlers from B.U.M. Productions to make a porno film based on an anonymously written Victorian erotic poem entitled (surprise!) Eskimo Nell.
The acting in Escape from Absolom is surprisingly good, considering some of those in it. Of course, there is Ray Liotta as Robbins, around whom the film is built. He does one of his better turns, moving indiscriminately throughout the film from indifferent to psycho to concern without working up much of a sweat. Obviously one of his last roles before he took up heavy drinking, not only does he look good and his face not at all puffy, but his one shirtless scene reveals a fabulously well-trained upper body. (If all the guys there had bodies like that, who cares if the island has no women – a problem totally ignored in the film.) Lance Henrikson, a familiar face in many a fifth and first class film, is The Father, the world-weary leader of the good guys whose only hope in life is to escape the island so as to reveal to the world what horrible things go on there. Kevin Dillon, one of many non-famous brothers of more successful stars, defies all expectations and delivers a believable job as Casay, a wimpy member of the good guys whose general dorkiness causes Robbins' to befriend him, while Michael Lerner, a familiar face whose career as a character actor goes as far back as an early episode of The Brady Bunch, does a patently expressionless performance as the evil warden (seemingly modeled after his Oscar-nominated performance in Barton Fink (1991/trailer)). Most enjoyable is Stuart Wilson as Marek, the suavely psychotic leader of the Outsiders – not only does he get the best lines, but he manages to chew the scenery without being overly camp. (His wardrobe, like that of all the bad guys, was seemingly bought off the rack at The Crypt and The Pep Boys. The good guys, on the other hand, obviously spend the evenings knitting or sewing, for they all seem to be clothed in hand-knit sweaters or loose-fitting hippie garments, everything in earth tones.) There are a couple of other familiar faces and a ton of type casting, and of course, the mandatory midget.

The movie gets straight to the point, when the credit sequence of a military parade ends with one man breaking ranks and blowing the brains out of the commander standing at attention. Soon after, Robbins is taking a monorail to a fortress jail in the middle of a sandy desert where he quickly locks horns with the sadistic warden. (This being 2022, prisons have long since become a private, capitalistic enterprise, no longer run by the state.) Had the warden acted sensibly and simply had Robbins killed, there would be no story, so luckily, he sends the man to Absolom. Absolom is a lush, beautiful island somewhere off the coast where the all the incorrigibles are dumped and left to fend for themselves. Much like an adult version of The Lord of the Flies, the men there have split into two warring camps: the blood-thirsty and primitive Outsiders, who live in the jungles; and the industrious, peace-loving Insiders, who live in an almost medieval village they have built in a clearing. Winning his right to live amongst the Outsiders, Robbins promptly blows all chances of advancement in the corporation and runs off, less escaping to the Insiders than falling into their hands after being left for dead by the Outsiders. Between various scenes of carnage, the rest of the film concerns Robbins slowly coming around and regaining his sense of communal responsibility while at the same time helping The Father realize his dream of getting "the truth" off the island. (Of course, we also learn why he blew the brains out of that military big wig, too.) The big escape holds no water at all, but it does give the viewer a good sense of satisfaction....
Escape from Absolom is reminiscent of many films, including but not limited to Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (1981/trailer), The Shawshank Redemption (1994/trailer), Fortress (1993) and Most Dangerous Game (1932) and its thousands of imitations. But then, any film featuring a loner who gets hunted like an animal before he ends up helping a struggling group fight against penal injustice and a despotic warden in an inescapable prison located on an uncharted island in the future is bound to remind someone of some movie somewhere. (Okay, so maybe Escape from Absolom is a string of clichés – at least it works.)
If possible, the uncut version should be the one rented, for otherwise one misses a lot of pleasant decapitations, an embowelling and spikings and stuff. And we wouldn't want that, now, would we?

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