As subtle as a kick in the groin and almost as entertaining, “No Escape” is about as cynical, shallow and crass as a Hollywood thriller is likely to get. At least one can hope. Owen Wilson, making a thankfully rare detour from comedy, plays Jack Dwyer, a down-on-his-luck American engineer hoping to make a fresh start by relocating his wife and young daughters to an unnamed Southeast Asian country. (The movie was shot in Thailand.) As luck would have it, their plane lands just about the same time surly revolutionaries have assassinated the prime minister, a circumstance shown to the audience in all its gruesome glory, but which remains unknown to our hapless heroes.
Phone, cable and internet are all down at their hotel, so no news reaches them, but the air conditioning is working and the windows stay closed, so they don’t hear any explosions or gunfire either. So it is that Jack blithely walks out to buy a paper in the morning, and runs right into a violent conflict between rebels and heavily armed police. He gets back to his hotel by the skin of his teeth, as the rebels begin beating foreigners, and quickly escalate to butchering them.
It turns out that Jack has just been hired by a western company that’s deservedly unpopular with the locals, which makes it all the more problematical that they’ve posted his face on a welcome sign in the hotel lobby. By this point in the movie, and believe me, we aren’t far in, plot has become all but irrelevant as the movie devolves into one long, harrowing chase. This is an exercise for the nerves, not the brain. Most of “No Escape” is a simpleminded struggle to survive punctuated by bloody fights and hiding under rubble as the less fortunate are hacked to pieces by machetes. It might as well be a zombie movie, and one less brainy than the average episode of “The Walking Dead” at that.
Owen Wilson’s well-established on-screen persona (it’s been nearly 15 years since he starred in “Behind Enemy Lines”) is an odd fit for the role, although it does make us less likely to question why it’s taking the character so long to wake up and smell the revolution. Lake Bell, also better known for comic roles, makes the best of a two dimensional, largely clichéd role which calls for her to be in the middle of violent, frenetic and often bloody action, including an uncompromising attempted gangrape scene. Claire Geare and Sterling Jerins, perfectly effective as the Dwyer daughters, are frequently shown in jeopardy, adding to the pervasive tone of menace.
Pierce Brosnan, as the family’s fairy god spook, seems to have wandered in from a lesser Graham Greene novel. He loudly telegraphs that his character is more than he seems from his first appearance – his loud, hard-drinking, woman-chasing veneer is somewhat less convincing than Clark Kent’s glasses. (A scene with Brosnan singing karaoke is, by the way, every bit as physically painful as his musical numbers in “Mama Mia.”) Later in the movie, he sympathetically explains the roots of the revolution to Jack, who may be understandably unsympathetic.
In any event, the scene is complete hooey. We’re told that the rebels are just trying to save their own children from unspecified horrors being perpetrated by western commercial interests. But for the past hour or so, all the audience has seen has been senseless brutality, including rape, directed at any caucasian. All the scene does is slow down the action in the late second act. And it’s hypocritical to boot. No one who’s managed to sit through the movie to this point gives a damn about the rebels’ motivations and the filmmakers damn well know it. It’s possible to add complexity to a story like this, to add some sympathetic dimension to the antagonists, but writer/director John Erick Dowdle and co-writer Drew Dowdle seem to have neither the talent nor the inclination to try. The Dowdle brothers are best-known for micro-budget horror movies and that’s all they’ve done here. They’ve just tried to make it look relevant.
Which brings us to an unpleasant point, but the filmmakers have brought this one on themselves. There’s an ugly racist aspect to this entire exercise, as dark-skinned, nameless Asian bad guys behave in the most unreasoning, mindless and savage ways possible from beginning to end. This bodice-ripping of white women by slavering, sadistic Asian heavies should have gone the way of the old Yellow Peril pulp magazines decades ago. Messrs Dowdle ought to be ashamed of themselves and the film ought to be picketed. They aren’t making any point here at all, except that nice, white Americans ought to stay at home, preferably in gated communities with stand your ground laws, as far away from people who look different as possible.
Extremely well-photographed, “No Escape” does capture a visceral intensity during the nearly non-stop action scenes, much of which has the kinetic, handheld feel of genuine war zone reporting. The musical score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders is not subtle – nothing about this movie is – but it does effectively underscore the nerve-jangling tone.
“No Escape” was shot under the title “The Coup,” a title which tested poorly. It’s been in the can since 2014, and everyone concerned would have been better off if it had stayed there. The only escape from “No Escape” is simply not to go.