No matter if a film is going the pulpy route for cheap thrills or the proper route for dramatic resonance, political thrillers, by their very nature and definition, need to capitalize on a political statement. They need a stance and the bolder the better. If the statement is flimsy, the movie will be flimsy behind it. Take a classic like “Die Hard.” Now, that’s not your typical political thriller, but it powers the peril of the hero with American bravura and gives its stock Cold War ethnic stereotype villains oodles of personality and purpose. That’s a pulpy political thriller done right, where the body count and the violence entertain as much as they matter.
No offense, but “No Escape,” the rudderless and violent thriller from the makers of “As Above, So Below,” “Devil,” and “Quarantine” can’t muster a strong political statement to back up what it’s selling. This is a horror film disguised as an expat drama. To its credit, the action is unpredictable, unnerving, and flies at a white-knuckle pace. However, its purpose and delivery is senseless and nearly reprehensible. It lacks the spine to make the proverbial wringer the characters are put through matter in some way, shape, or form outside of exploiting our fears and senses. “No Escape” undoubtedly has an edge, but it’s a raw and misshapen one.
The film opens with a smoothly mysterious and coordinated assassination scene of a important diplomat right under the nose of his tight security force. Seventeen hours earlier, we meet Owen Wilson’s Jack Dwyer. He is a meager American businessman for a water company who is uprooting his wife Annie (Lake Bell, playing older than her age) and two daughters (Sterling Jerins of “World War Z” and newcomer Claire Geare) to move to an (appropriately) unnamed Southeast Asian country (filmed in Thailand) for a big new job. The newly expat family are fish out of water upon arrival. They are shown around by Hammond, played by Pierce Brosnan,a pseudo-British/Australian traveler, who took the same flight and is staying at the same English-friendly hotel in the city.
Unbeknownst to our protagonists, that opening high-level assassination has set off an enormous anti-Western political coup. Jack becomes caught in the middle of a brutal clash in the streets between protesters and police. These aren’t loud protesters shaking fists and toting signs. In a movie such as “No Escape,” they are one-dimensional savage Asian stereotypes armed to the teeth and thirstier than zombies for bloodshed. The police are no match for the insurgents and the mob descends on the Dwyer’s hotel.
Westerners are being executed on site, left and right, via firing squad, clubs to the head, machete hacks, or intentional collisions with truck bumpers. The situation is beyond ugly. This makes Benghazi look like a bar fight between fat guys. In fact, ugly jumped out the window and got smeared in the sidewalk in favor of nihilist grotesqueness. The body count zooms way out of control while our family man Jack, with the later help of Hammond, tries to sneak his family to safety or asylum.
As if you couldn’t tell by the top-billed presence alone of Owen Wilson in a movie like this, the casting is way off. “Behind Enemy Lines” was a long 14 years ago and that barely worked with Wilson playing the action hero. His act hasn’t aged well or improved. Wilson’s coincidental persona of Texas charm and disarming humor has no place in a harrowing balls-to-the-wall film such as “No Escape.” Pierce Brosnan’s sporadic and mildly entertaining appearances don’t do enough to back the headliner, and Lake Bell, sorry to say, is somewhere lost in the wide expanse between resting-bitchface-helpless-and-unhappy-wife and resting-bitchface-tiger-mom-woman-of-action. The writers seemingly couldn’t decide.
To pile on and speaking of writing, whether it was in the script or improvised, Owen Wilson’s attempts at jokes, quips, and soothing optimism fall terrifically flat each and every time he opens his mouth. Casting a beefcake over an Everyman such as Wilson would be understandably too obvious, but anyone, or even an unknown, could have served even this flimsy film better. Wilson needs to stick to quirky comedy and leave this action itch alone.
When “No Escape” is not twisting the knife with crazy and cringe-inducing action, all of the tonal choices fail in this film. Beyond casting, too much of what is played out in “No Escape” lacks any moral fortitude to feel purposeful or even entertaining. Over 90% of the scenes, including the stable moments between chases and threats, are shot with a maddening and nauseating shaky POV camerawork. When the film does shift speeds, it employs an incredibly cheesy slow-motion effect that would make even John Woo check his watch and wonder what’s taking so long.
Worst of all, “No Escape” has nothing to say that motivates the mortifying calamities it puts Jack and his clan through. Without a defined edge, the jarring unpredictability stops entertaining and starts becoming too excessive to warrant, let alone condone. This isn’t “The Purge” with its coldly titillating social commentary. “No Escape” lacks a purpose to justify its tension. A leader in a uniform gets killed and faceless Asians start pulling out the machetes and hacking the white people to death. That’s it. No wonder the film is banned in Cambodia and Thailand already. Expect more to follow suit. A film that fashions itself as an edgy political thriller has to do better than that to play on our fears and intellect and not just drop our jaws.
Lesson #1: Stay ten steps ahead of your challenges— Repeatedly stated as a “coach ’em up” moment to his wife and kids, this lesson is apparently Jack’s personal mantra and email signature for life in “No Escape.” It becomes a pertinent goal for him when he and his family are hunted by machete-and-gun-toting revolutionaries in a hostile foreign country. Jack is still Owen Wilson, so he’s not the brightest and most pragmatic thinker in the world, as evidence by a colossally unintentionally funny scene of high anxiety where he throws his daughters off of one roof to another to stay ahead of imminent execution. This is the depth of this movie’s character-driven logic, so it makes the lessons.
Lesson #2: When normal people are forced to kill— The disturbing gauntlet of near-death experiences that pile before Jack and his family gets excessive and immoral quite quickly. Not before long, both Jack and Annie reach that point where they have to kill to defend their family. It’s messy. It’s feral. It’s frightening and it’s in front of their children. This is beyond push-comes-to-shove character-building. This is traumatic and, naturally, a movie like this won’t care about that effect until after the credits and one or two more Owen Wilson anecdotes that couldn’t break the mood or tension if they tried.
Lesson #3: Maybe think twice about going to or staying in countries that do not like Americans or Westerners— If you’re taking a high-end job in a Fourth World country, maybe do a little homework before uprooting the family and potentially placing them in harm’s way. Put in a little research about the company you’re working for and the political climate you’re entering. It’s likely pretty apparent in visible precursors and reasonably recent news headlines if a country has the likelihood of going from accommodating to “execute all the English-speakers” at the drop of a hat or drop of a bullet into the chest of their likely despotic leader. A setting of dry kindling like that has to stand out before any matches get lit. Maybe you say no and go back to CareerBuilder before taking such a position.