Few would claim “No Escape” lacks intensity; it’s one of the most relentlessly aggressive, nonstop thrillers in years. But what it does appear to be unsure of are its intentions. The majority of heart-pounding, near-death getaways from certain doom recall modern action movies, yet the moments of stealthy evasions and nerve-wracking concealment prior to such explosive confrontations parallel horror films and the more realistic severity of ripped-from-the-headlines conflicts in war-torn countries.
Despite an initial commitment to that specific authenticity, it’s not long before Pierce Brosnan’s juggernaut of blazing guns and militaristic combat moves enters the fray. In fact, it’s the notable action star’s appearance that becomes either highly intriguing or completely unwelcome, depending on how the audience has viewed the events leading up to his haphazard, but expected, arrival. This inconsistency carries over to the violence in the picture as well. Half the time, it’s apparent that catharsis should be derived from the bouts of bloodshed, while the rest is oftentimes just downright sinister. The fact that much of the brutality happens amidst the wide-eyed scrutiny of young children amplifies its potency – at which point even the heroics of gung-ho antiheroes can’t twist the appalling into the adventurous.
When Jack Dwyer’s (Owen Wilson) new job finds him relocating his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare) to a third-world Asian country, he attempts to console his family that it’s for the best. But his commiseration turns to trepidation when he discovers that a governmental coup has transpired, making dissenters and foreigners the targets of immediate execution. As death and destruction close in around him, Jack must find a way to protect his family and escape the city – with only the aid of mysterious expatriate Hammond (Pierce Brosnan).
It begins with a cold open full of genuine gusto, setting up a scenario that soon devolves into a more volatile take on “Battle: Los Angeles” or “The Purge,” but one utilizing a far more realistic setting. The backdrop is political instead of primordial or carnal, which gives it a boost of tenseness far more terrifying than in the aforementioned works of fictional farfetchedness. It’s scary and believable – at least until it becomes overdependent on a Rambo-esque hero to save the day.
The introduction so brilliantly establishes a nerve-wracking situation that even the calmer, obligatory familial presentations can go on for a time without noticeably slowing down the pacing. The basic actions of chatting on a flight, hailing a taxi, or walking through a bazaar can’t shake the jitteriness imparted by that dark opening. “I’m loving how unpredictable this hotel is,” comments Jack, with what seems to be a casual remark before it’s revealed to have foreshadowed unspeakable atrocities.
Lots of handheld camerawork restively tailing weaving runners, paired with Marco Beltrami’s pulsing score, create several artistic yet harrowing chase sequences. The edginess, however, soon loses its precision when extreme perils are spontaneously invented just to heighten audience anxiety. At certain points, when protagonists are backed into corners from which the only escape is an extravagant entrance by a heroic intervener at the last possible second, the shocking realism from the start is all but lost. A Terminator-like villain is also a misstep, pushing the unsentimental events into the realm of an actioner. Nevertheless, the suspense is capably handled (by the Brothers Dowdle, who previously worked on the horror films “The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” “Quarantine,” and “As Above, So Below”) to an admirably distressing degree.