It doesn’t happen often, but for some reason Owen Wilson makes for a believable action hero. It hasn’t really been seen from him since 2001’s “Behind Enemy Lines”, which arrived at an awkward time in the comedy actor’s career, but people liked it and the film was a surprising hit. So finding him in the thick of a bloody and violent flick like “No Escape” isn’t as jarring as one might think. And as it turns out, the film is far better than one might think, striking a nice balance between your typical vacation horror and the thrilling disaster drama, “The Impossible”.
Wilson stars as Jack Dwyer, an American flying off to Thailand with his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and two daughters, Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare), to take a job as an engineer for a company working on the country’s water system. In only a few minutes we’re let in on who the Dwyers are, and the answer is they’re pretty darned wholesome all around, but there’s also some unresolved tension over the big move. The characters are sketched out just enough to give us an impression, but obviously a film like this isn’t going to delve too deep. The same goes for Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), a Westerner of mysterious motivations and an odd sense of humor. He knows the landscape a little too well and always seems to be around, drink in hand and women on his mind.
Little do the Dwyers know they’re flying in-country at the worst possible time. Even before we meet the Dwyers (which sounds like it should be the title for a Wilson comedy, Meet the Dwyers), we’re witness to violent, blood-spurting overthrow of the current regime, with the country’s President massacred in his own palace. It’s just the opening salvo of a revolution that finds protesters massacring everyone they find, but especially Westerners. The killers stampede through the streets, hacking up innocents until they find their way to the Dwyers’ hotel, sending the family on a mad dash through the city to save themselves.
Directed by John Erick Dowdle and co-written with his brother Drew, the two bring much of the same claustrophobic intensity they brought to their breakout horror, “Quarantine”. This is the first time since that they’ve been able to match that level of paranoia and fear, as the Dwyers are faced with a situation in which they are being persecuted at every turn, simply for being Americans. While the major set pieces are effective, it’s the smaller indignities they face that have the most impact. Starvation begins to settle in, and even simple things as being able to use the restroom become a dangerous ordeal. And dragging along a couple of kids, with all of their needs and frequent whining fits, only makes their predicament more perilous. It almost makes you worry less about them as Jack hurls them over a rooftop to another, but Dowdle has built up such sympathy for the Dwyers that we can’t help but fear for their safety. That said, Dowdle’s use of slow-motion to ramp up the dramatic tension is excessive, mainly because he doesn’t need to do it. It’s already disturbing enough watching this simple blue collar family trapped in the middle of such a brutal war, and trying to shield their children from the death all around them.
Nobody will be surprised to learn that Brosnan’s character turns out to be a highly skilled British agent, and he’s deployed resourcefully rather than taking over the film entirely. It’s actually a pretty lean role for him, but one thing Brosnan is great at is playing off his 007 past to create the outline of a character, allowing us to fill in the blanks. He’s actually quite good here, especially as Hammond begins to reveal who the real bad guys are in this situation. He picks up the action slack from Wilson, whose character is portrayed as capable….to a point. That’s another smart aspect of the screenplay in that it doesn’t try to turn Jack into “Die Hard”‘s John McClane. He’s resourceful, yes, but he needs to get bailed out more than once, either by Hammond or by his wife, or even by his kids. That said, there does come a point when the Dwyers face odds so long that it becomes a little tough to swallow, culminating in a finale that’s too silly to maintain the film’s visceral sensation. Still, “No Escape” is thrilling, seat-of-your-pants entertainment that ends the summer blockbuster season on a much higher note than expected.