It’s been a long week of law journal footnote-checking, and I’m always game for an intense, internationally-oriented thriller. “No Escape” is certainly a thriller, though undoubtedly a highly imperfect one.
When water engineer Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters move to Unnamed Country (which I’m pretty sure is supposed to be Indonesia), civil unrest breaks out and they must flee for survival. That’s it – and honestly, “No Escape” is at its best when it’s keeping things simple. The rationale behind the revolution is persistently murky – something having to do with protests over Dwyer’s American corporation’s purchase of the nation’s municipal water utility. Further, Unnamed Country’s entire military and police force is seemingly eradicated within an 8-hour timespan.
That leaves Dwyer to figure out how to save his family.
It’s worth noting “No Escape” has been decried by some for its depiction of foreigners as violent and cruel, but the movie’s late attempt to course-correct (“actually, this violence is a legitimate response to the economic imperialism of global corporations” – I’m not making this up) is just insulting. Let’s make one thing clear: this is a kitchen-sink mélange of Chaotic Revolutlonary Violence tropes (mass executions, Tianenmen Square-style tanks, statues being torn down, hotels being sacked). It has no pretensions to greatness, artistic merit, historical significance, or cultural sensitivity.
The film’s rhythm is also frustratingly inexpert – there are tons of Chekhov’s-guns thrown around here, but they lack payoff. For example, in one nail-biting sequence, a masked Dwyer and family must slowly drive a moped through a crowd of rioters. Throughout this entire scene, the wedding bands worn by Dwyer and his wife are clearly visible. One would think this would be a dead giveaway leading into an extended, frenzied chase scene…and moreover, such an innocent oversight would be consistent with Dwyer’s stressed-middle-management character. But no one seems to notice, and the story keeps chugging along. In another scene, Dwyer trades his Nike sneakers for a local man’s vehicle. His wife, hiding under a nearby structure out of Dwyer’s view, can only see the feet of those who pass by. It’d be a natural mistake for her to assume that someone wearing Dwyer’s shoes is indeed Dwyer, and break cover prematurely (leading into an intense, yet understandable and relatable, standoff).
Finally, it’s a cheap Hollywood move to tie the revolution’s raison d’être directly to Dwyer’s company. “No Escape” would be far more terrifying as a story about civilians caught between two factions that happen to be fighting over an issue incomprehensible to Westerners. Casual indifference to collateral damage is far more terrifying – and far more realistic – than outright “good guy/bad guy” conflict.
“No Escape” is not a genre-defining film that demands to be seen immediately. That being said…when “No Escape” tries to conjure up nerve-shredding terror, it succeeds in spades. Make no mistake, this is a film that exists purely to summon rushes of pure adrenaline. The “nice family in peril” card has been played countless times before, but rarely over such a brutally sustained duration (think “Hotel Rwanda” for a good analogue of the intensity level here). Coupling its nail-biting premise with savage carnage (this movie earns its R rating purely for massacre-related violence), “No Escape” hits the same psychological notes as an effectively-made horror movie, but with an additional “this could actually happen” gut-punch.
Additionally, Pierce Brosnan has an extended guest appearance here, and he’s great as an aging James Bond-type figure. This is a connection the filmmakers clearly want audiences to make – for heaven’s sake, Brosnan’s character worked for British Intelligence, is great with a gun, has traveled internationally for decades, and has a long history of broken relationships. If you (like me) are fond of the theory that “James Bond” is not a given name but a professional alias, then this is the story of a retired and self-reflective ex-Bond, told from the perspective of a classic Bond film’s side character. (Thinking about the film from this angle makes the whole thing much more enjoyable.)
Is “No Escape” worth a watch? Theatrically speaking, it’s pure pulp entertainment that’s flawed yet quite exciting. If you liked the first “Taken,” “No Escape” may be for you: Owen Wilson is no Liam Neeson, but this is decidedly that kind of “what lengths would you go to for your family?” film. That being said, most viewers will lose little by waiting for Netflix or HBO – “No Escape” certainly isn’t bad, but neither is it a must-see.
It’s a dreadful muddle on the narrative front, but “No Escape” still packs its fair share of watchable B-movie craziness.
Normalized Score: 2.4