In No Escape, Owen Wilson plays Jack Dwyer, a one-time entrepreneur who has fallen on tough times and must move his family overseas to take a job with a company overseeing the construction of a new clean water project in an unnamed Southeast Asian country. But when Jack, his wife Annie (Lake Bell), and their children Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare) arrive after a long, grueling flight, the car the company was supposed to send is not there, nor does Jack’s new corporate cell phone work — a disappointing start to their new life as ex-pats.
Luckily, a slightly sozzled Englishman named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) and his local buddy Kenny Roger (Sahajak Boonthanakit) – who calls himself that because he loves the American singer – are on hand to give them a ride. Once they get to their hotel, they find that the phones and TV don’t work either, and Jack can’t get hold of even a newspaper. What the family doesn’t know is that while they were in the air, rebels assassinated the country’s prime minister and a full-scale revolution is underway – with Americans in particular targeted and the Dwyers now in mortal danger of being hacked, shot, or clubbed to death by the vicious, swarming mobs.
Theoretically, a movie about an American family caught in the throes of revolution in a Third World country could make for compelling, thoughtful and suspenseful viewing. But No Escape is not that movie. Instead, director/screenwriter John Erick Dowdle and his brother/co-writer Drew Dowdle – whose resume includes Quarantine, Devil, and As Above, So Below – take the Hostel route with No Escape, making a xenophobic, borderline racist action flick that, like Eli Roth’s frequently repulsive film, paints a foreign land as a threatening, nightmarish landscape, and its inhabitants as little more than violent, treacherous savages.
Since the airport would probably be among the first locations attacked and secured by the rebels, No Escape already starts out on shaky logical ground. But it’s slick and tense enough at the outset to keep you watching for a while to see how it plays out. Soon enough, however, a few things become apparent: Owen Wilson is painfully miscast as the average American family man turned warrior, Lake Bell is wasted as the one-dimensional, dutiful, endlessly supportive wife and despite a few pretentious jabs at some kind of meaning, No Escape is just junk that preys on white Americans’ distrust of anyone who doesn’t look like them.
The portrayal of the Asian country itself, which seems at least loosely based on Cambodia, is so egregious that the Dowdles wisely left it unnamed. The only context given for the revolution is a mid-film monologue delivered by Hammond – who turns out to be a secret British intelligence agent (or “something like that,” as he cryptically tells Jack) – in which he spells out that the reasons for the upheaval actually are tied to the work that Jack has relocated to do and those good old go-to villains, evil, faceless corporations. Hammond’s explanation would provide sympathy and understanding for the rebels, except that they are portrayed throughout as psychopathic animals – you might as well have the Dwyers running from a swarm of zombies.
Meanwhile, the endlessly smug Wilson’s transformation from lost-at-sea tourist to fighting machine never quite comes across believably, nor does his penchant for leaving his family alone at key moments. Brosnan provides the film’s sole spark of character life, although just as he did in The Tailor of Panama, The Matador, and The November Man, he is playing an aged, wearier and semi-retired variation on James Bond – but like several of those, this twist on that template is witty and charming, and I daresay even an improvement on his later Bond efforts, so it’s regrettable that he doesn’t have a larger role in this picture.
There are a lot of regrettable things in No Escape, least of all its penchant for wringing maximum exploitational value out of putting Jack’s family in terrifying or humiliating situations. His younger daughter must pee her pants when they can’t get to a bathroom, while Bell must endure the inevitable almost-rape before being rather inexplicably rescued. 40 years ago this would have been drive-in trash directed by a low-rent Italian filmmaker, but here the Dowdles (whose horror films have been fairly effective) apply a shiny veneer of admittedly polished technical craftsmanship. There’s still no escaping the fact, however, that they’re pretending to make an action spin on Missing while actually all they’ve come up with is a more white-knuckle Turistas.
No Escape is out in theaters Friday (August 28).