Despite some competent suspenseful filmmaking, a thin story and xenophobic overtones make No Escape an unpleasant movie to watch.
No Escape revolves around U.S. citizen Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) and his family - Jack's wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters, Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare) - who make the journey from Texas to Southern Asia in order to relocate for Jack's new job. However, the Dwyers barely have one night to try and adjust to life in their new "fourth-world" home when the local political leader is assassinated and a coup breaks out around them.
With foreigners being executed on sight, Jack and his family - along with their fellow travelers like the mysterious Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) - are left frantically searching for a way to escape the country, before they are caught and killed by the local rebels. Getting out of the war zone is easier said than done, and it's not long before Jack and Annie are faced with challenges, and are forced to take gruesome courses of action that they never expected, in order to keep themselves and their children alive.
No Escape writer/director John Erick Dowdle and his brother Drew Dowdle (who co-penned the film's script with John Erick) have carved out a niche for themselves in Hollywood by making lean and mean B-movie thrillers, set in locations ranging from an elevator (Devil) to the lower depths of the Parisian catacombs (As Above, So Below). The Dowdle brothers usually rely on a supernatural and/or otherwise fantastical antagonist loaded with symbolic value in their films (see also Quarantine), in order to craft a simple yet effective character story around the movie's pulpy thrills. Unfortunately, the decision to make the villains in No Escape masses of nameless Asians (from a barely identified country) turns what could have been a serviceable B-movie into an insensitive and morally repulsive film.
Save for the prologue (which is a tightly constructed sequence shot), No Escape does not stray from the Dwyers' experiences, allowing them to serve as the audience's vantage point during the slaughter that unfolds in the film. Problem is, the local population is reduced to being a pack of either snarling killers - which have about as much complexity as, say, the zombies in World War Z - or hapless victims, whose lives become forfeit the moment that they are no longer helpful to the main characters. The intent behind this approach is to show how the Dwyers are forced to guard themselves against the horrors around them in order to survive, but even big-budget Hollywood disaster films will usually take a moment to acknowledge the loss of human life surrounding the protagonists - something No Escape never properly does.
In terms of craftsmanship, No Escape boasts a handful of terse sequences (like the aforementioned opening scene) that are well-executed by John Erick Dowdle and his collaborators. However, some of the visual techniques used by Dowdle and his As Above, So Below cinematographer Léo Hinstin (slow-motion, extreme closeups) result in certain scenarios becoming outright laughable and campy, when they're intended to be dead serious and/or terrifying. The film also relies heavily on unsteady handheld camerawork and fast editing throughout most of its action scenes; however, because No Escape lacks the visual clarity of a similar approach by someone like Paul Greengrass, the final result just leaves you feeling seasick rather than engaged. Likewise, the film's violence is portrayed in an exploitative fashion, aiming for brutal realism with its depiction of the bloodshed, but rarely with any sort of emotional connection for the audience.
No Escape's narrative, as crafted through the Dowdles' screenwriting and editing by Elliot Greenberg (Chronicle, Fantastic Four), is pretty much one non-stop run to the finish line, once the coup in the plot gets underway. Unfortunately, the film's story is too stream-lined, leaving little room for characters arcs or themes beyond the barely developed idea that people will do anything to protect their loved ones. Likewise, what little political commentary the film offers comes in the form of a single monologue that comes off as hypocritical and hollow in the context of the movie given its racial/class-based politics (be they intended or not). The film's abrupt tonal shifts and attempts to alleviate the proceedings with brief moments of levity all fall flat too.
Owen Wilson, whose last action movie was Behind Enemy Lines in 2001, does manage to deliver a respectable performance in No Escape, as the good-humored father who proves willing to do whatever is necessary to protect his wife and children. Similarly, the family dynamic between Wilson and Lake Bell (Million Dollar Arm), Sterling Jerins (World War Z), and Claire Geare (Inception) ends up being the film's most convincing element. At the same time, Pierce Brosnan does passable work as Hammond, a well-traveled and incorrigible British man who helps the Dwyers both before (and after) the violence begins, while Sahajak Boonthanakit (Only God Forgives) as "Kenny Rogers" is the only Asian character featured with a discernible personality (though even he is something of a stereotype).
Despite some competent suspenseful filmmaking, a thin story and xenophobic overtones make No Escape an unpleasant movie to watch. The film also provides evidence that, with their next project, the Dowdle brothers might be better off sticking to non-human villains, since their B-movie sensibilities seemingly don't lend themselves very well to grounded scenarios and setups. This is yet another late August movie release that you can feel comfortable skipping.
No Escape is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 103 minutes long and is Rated R for strong violence including a sexual assault, and for language.
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