A film review by Craig J. Koban September 5, 2015

NO ESCAPE jj
½   

2015, R, 103 mins.

 

Owen Wilson as Jack Dwyer  /  Lake Bell as Annie Dwyer  /  Pierce Brosnan as Hammond  /  Sterling Jerins as Lucy Dwyer  /  Spencer Garrett as Recruiter

Directed by John Erick Dowdle  /  Screenplay by Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle

NO ESCAPE is an uncommonly and mercilessly chilling and intense human survival thriller that is, at times, quite masterful at drumming up nerve jangling intrigue.  There are very few recent examples of the genre that I can recall that evoked such a consistent tone of unease and dread throughout; watching this film was an uncompromisingly brutal experience for me.  

Yet, NO ESCAPE is also a film – beyond its thriller genre elements – that contains some weak political sermonizing regarding corrupt corporate American interests in Asian countries, not to mention that the story’s overall handling of its ethnic characters borders on xenophobic.  This leaves me at a questionable critical quandary: 

Is it okay to admire a film that has dubious racial and cultural representations? 

The short answer to that very difficult question is…sort of.  

There’s no denying that NO ESCAPE begins rather sensationally, featuring a bravura sequence involving the assassination of a prime minister by a group of blood thirsty armed rebels in an unnamed Asian country.  The film then flashbacks nearly a day as we meet an American family that has just landed in that same country: Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson, uncharacteristically and refreshingly a far cry from his typical comedic film ventures) is an American engineer that’s flying in with his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare) in order to start a new life as part of an U.S. company looking to bring safer water to the nation.  Predictably, when the family lands there they feel largely out of step with their new surroundings, but they're befriended by a kind – but drunkenly – Brit named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), who courteously offers them transportation to their hotel. 

 

 

Mixed in with the family’s long-term anxieties and stresses of relocating to a strange country are the initial peculiarities of their hotel stay: the power seems to be off and all phone lines are apparently dead.  Even the Internet is down all over the city.  The plucky and headstrong Jack tries to brush it all off in stride, but a day later his initial nonchalant attitude to acclimatizing himself to his new surroundings gives way to full-on panic when he finds himself – during one seemingly carefree stroll through a local market – witnessing a viciously violent battle between police officers and angry local rioters that turns horrifically savage in no time.  Jack manages to flee back to his hotel, but when he does he sees the same vehemently violent army of rebels laying siege all across the city…and they're now making plans to take over the hotel and kill any American businessman on sight.  Later realizing that this malicious coup has everything to do with his multinational employer’s interests in the country, Jack understands the gravity of his dire situation, leaving him with no choice but to take his family, escape the hotel, and get to the safety of the American embassy. 

I really appreciated the seemingly odd – at face value – casting of Wilson and Bell as the leads in this film, both of whom are mostly known for ostensibly appearing in big screen comedies.  Wilson and Bell are the biggest qualitative scores in NO ESCAPE, as they have the thankless jobs of relaying their characters’ devastating fears while trying to urgently maintain composure and confidence in the face of their traumatized children.  Much like, for example, THE IMPOSSIBLE, NO ESCAPE works with such a pulse pounding immediacy when showcasing ordinary people trying everything to survive hellishly dangerous circumstances.  That, and the thriller/action genre is usually typified by indestructible super heroes that always have a quick solution to any predicament.  NO ESCAPE goes largely against conventions and formulas for showing troubled everyday souls that are put through inhumanly hellacious dangers, one right after the other, and all while sometimes having to make unfeasibly tough choices along the way.  Jack and Annie are limitlessly courageous people in the film, but their acts of bravery are born out of instinctual survival necessity to protect their children.  Wilson and Bell are crazily effective in relaying this and have arguably never been better in movie. 

NO ESCAPE’s director John Erik Dowdle (he co-wrote the film with his sibling Drew) creates individual sequences of pure squirm inducing suspense throughout.  A majority of the film is a wondrous technical exercise of showcasing its characters sprinting, jumping, hiding, and navigating through a city they know nothing about, which makes NO ESCAPE work with such fierce, white knuckled efficiency.  Take, for instance, an unspeakably horrific scene where Jack and Annie – while on the rooftop of their hotel – realize that they need to jump from their building to the next to evade their pursuers and certain death.  The chasm is narrow enough to jump, but the thought of a misstep paralyzes Annie with fear.  That, and Jack has to convince her that – once she is over safe and sound – she’ll have to catch each child that Jack will subsequently throw over.  Beyond the feverous intensity of that scene, there’s a later one that involves the family – disguised in rebel garb – trying to drive a stolen motorcycle through the rebel riddled streets while avoiding detection.  On a level of pure cinematic execution, NO ESCAPE is an inordinately gripping experience through and through.  

Yet, there’s a shady undercurrent to the film that’s hard to overlook, despite its overt technical brilliance, much of which has to do with the way the Dowdle’s paint their unspecified Asian country – and citizens – with the broadest of broad strokes.  The fact that the country isn’t named is troubling enough, especially seeing as the production wants to thematically point towards real world political and social strife.  A majority of the Asians in the film are essentially portrayed as snarling, barbaric, and machete and machine gun touting/American hating hostiles that kill with extreme prejudice and with very little mercy and/or forethought.  NO ESCAPE seems to one-sidedly evoke a country that’s unstoppably chaotic and malicious, which left a bitterly bad taste in my mouth.  The Asians in this film simply appear to have no other motivations beyond…indiscriminately killing people and little effort is made to develop any of them as characters.  To top it off, the screenplay then wants to pontificate – through one awkwardly written dialogue exchange – about how American companies seize upon impoverished Third World nations to milk profits for maximum value.  The level of would-be compelling political commentary in NO ESCAPE is kind of laughably one-note. 

Equally – and unintentionally amusing – is the whole arc of Brosnan’s Hammond character, whom emerges as one of the most conveniently placed movie heroes in recent memory; his main purpose in NO ESCAPE is to show up when the screenplay deems it necessary to save the Dwyers.  Beyond that, Brosnan – respectably, in fine form here – is inexplicably used for comic relief, which seems wholeheartedly disingenuous to the overall tone of a film that’s about genocidal city spanning mass murder.  In the end, I’m not sure if I should even be recommending this film.  On a level of pure artifice, Dowdle has made an almost unbearably – but hypnotically – suspenseful film that happens to be marvelously acted by Wilson and Bell.  It also doesn’t dumb down its violence and action for the purposes of cheap sensationalistic thrills; the mayhem in this film is unsavory and gut wrenching.  Yet, NO ESCAPE can’t seem to escape from being, on many levels, a brainless B-grade grindhouse flick that exploits an anonymous race and country for the purposes of creating woefully one-dimensional antagonists.   That’s simply too hard to run away from

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