How many foreign lives does it take to save a white American family? Thanks to the new chase-yarn, No Escape, we now have an answer. The guiltiest of guilty pleasures, director John Erick Dowdle has expertly crafted a taut action-thriller crammed with enough white privilege to make The Donald blush. Surprisingly, it’s the intense performance of Owen Wilson that might allow you to curb your conscience and go along for the ride. It’s undeniably fun… if you don’t think about it too much.
Watching No Escape is a decidedly schizophrenic experience. On the one hand, John Erick Dowdle and his brother, Drew, have written an earnest script that takes its peril very seriously. All of the primary characters (who just happen to be Westerners) are constructed with the utmost care; giving each of them distinct personalities and foibles to which we can relate. On the other hand, their lives are the only ones that seem to matter, with everyone else being reduced to cannon fodder. The message from Dowdle and Dowdle is glaringly clear: Save our heroes and to hell with everyone else!
“Welcome to the Third World,” Jack Dwyer (Wilson) announces to his young family shortly after arriving in an undisclosed Southeast Asian city. “Fourth World,” his wife Annie (Lake Bell) corrects him. “I didn’t know that was even a thing,” Jack replies. Despite his obvious ignorance and his affiliation with a shady water conglomerate, Jack is a good man. He tips street performers, listens intently to his daughters, Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare), and wants desperately to make his wife happy. Whereas an older, more staid actor might come across as the ‘ugly American,’ Wilson is the perfect ‘everyman’ stuck in the middle. It’s a role Bruce Willis could have played 30 years ago (and did in Die Hard), but is absolutely wrong for today. To everyone’s shock who made fun of “Owen Wilson: Action star,” Wilson is, indeed, perfectly cast.
Also impeccably cast is Pierce Brosnan as Hammond; a mysterious visitor who feels like more than just a tourist. Brosnan channels his burned out agent from The Matador to great effect, leering at hookers and singing off-key in a karaoke bar. A lesser movie would quickly gravitate to Brosnan’s quirky charm, but Dowdle pushes him into the background. This is Wilson’s movie, and his affable sincerity is all that keeps the ugliness at bay.
For a while, at least.
After a wonderful opening sequence that finds the Prime Minister of this godforsaken country being assassinated, all hell breaks loose in the streets. It seems the citizens aren’t too keen on Jack’s company taking control of their water supply and they want blood as a reimbursement. Jack and his family take to rooftops, botanical gardens, and polluted waterways to escape the raging horde of scary foreigners. It’s every American’s worst nightmare, plus they don’t even have cable television!
The action sequences are first-rate, thanks to some intimate camera work and clever editing. Yes, Dowdle leans a bit too heavily on sloooow-mooootion antics, but it doesn’t detract from the immediacy of things. When Jack has to pitch his children from one rooftop to the next, you feel the emotional and physical impact of his choices. Cuts and bruises ache, and even the child actors manage a convincing level of mortal terror. The street violence, too, is straight out of newsreels, lending authenticity to a situation most of us (hopefully) will never have to experience.
Paradoxically, it’s this same realism that makes the flaws of No Escape so much more egregious. Everything and everyone in this world exists merely to aid or torment our harried family; the nameless, faceless peril that awaits pampered foreigners everywhere. You almost expect the street mobsters to be called ‘Yellow Devil #1” and “Yellow Devil #2” in the closing credits. Even the Asian allies are severely punished for their kindnesses toward Jack and his kinfolk. It’s a jingoistic callousness that might feel right at home in ‘80s action films, but it’s painfully insensitive within a modern global context. Simply put, it’s almost inconceivable that Dowdle didn’t create a prominent Asian character to offset his one-dimensional depictions.
No Escape is at its best when Jack and Annie get their own hands dirty. The filmmakers want to know what you’re willing to do to survive. Are you willing to kill someone to save your family? To sacrifice yourself? It’s trench warfare at its most fundamental, cringe-inducing level. These intimate scenes propel the action forward in a meaningful way. Jack implores his panicked family to stay “10 steps ahead” of their pursuers, but Dowdle rarely gives them that miniscule luxury. For this genre, you can’t ask much more than that.
Bell holds her own with Wilson and, to the filmmaker’s credit, she is never reduced to a hysterical mess. She remains competent throughout, despite some questionable decisions later in the film. In fact, everyone is making questionable decisions by the end of No Escape, but there are refreshingly few groaners. The child actors are adequate (high praise from this particular critic), and Sahajak Boonthanakit has a few good scenes as a wacky cab driver with a Kenny Rogers fetish. Mainly, it’s Wilson’s show and he does a great job handling the spotlight.
No Escape is the sort of movie that will polarize audiences. Some will hate it within the first 15 minutes, while others will love it for the white-knuckled action. Truthfully, it belongs somewhere in the middle; deserving of ridicule for its insensitivity, but praiseworthy for its technical and thematic expertise. Where you fall in this spectrum depends upon your ability to overlook its obvious flaws. Should you overlook its flaws? If that’s a question you feel like asking, you should probably just sit this one out.