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An unlikely detour into action-hero territory for Owen Wilson, No Escape is a pedestrian but modestly gripping nerve-jangler from writer-director John Erick Dowdle. Set in a politically unstable southeast Asian nation, the timely script by Dowdle and his brother, Drew Dowdle, feeds off the perennial unease of Americans on foreign soil, evoking real events from the fall of Saigon to more recent massacres by Islamist terrorists. Originally titled The Coup, the film was renamed following poor early test screenings, reportedly because audiences were confused by the word “coup?“. Which reveals something about its target market, at least.
Dowdle earned his directing stripes with artless but lucrative low-budget horror shockers including Quarantine and As Above, So Below. This time he has more money, bigger stars and a vaguely topical action plot, though his basic formula is the same: monstrous villains, pulse-racing suspense and gory murders. Critics will dismiss it, but No Escape does a briskly efficient job with its elemental ingredients of ever-present threat and sporadically graphic violence. The Weinstein Company are handling its U.S. release on Aug. 26, with most of Europe to follow in early Sept.
No Escape takes place in an unnamed “fourth world”? nation with strong overtones of Cambodia, though Thailand serves as the real location. In the preamble, the country?’s crooked military ruler is assassinated by ruthless revolutionaries just as young businessman Jack Dwyer (Wilson) and his family jet in on their night flight from America, heading for a new life in an exotic faraway land. On the journey they encounter the loud-shirted English tourist Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), a regular visitor to this corner of Asia, apparently lured by its sleazy nightlife.
Dwyer has just been hired by a U.S. corporation which projects an image of benevolent social responsibility, but appears to be extremely unpopular with the local citizens, having privatized their water supply for profit. Newly installed in their luxury hotel, Dwyer, his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare) witness chaotic scenes in the sweltering streets outside. An angry mob is on the rampage, seizing control of the city, executing westerners on sight. Soon the entire hotel is under siege as riots escalate into full-scale civil war.
In high-concept plot terms, that is pretty much all No Escape has to offer. Dwyer and his family spend the rest of the movie frantically fleeing murderous guerrillas, leaping from rooftops, hiding in shadowy back streets, and committing lethal acts of self-defense. The characters are two-dimensional at best, or no-dimensional when it comes to the nameless Asian bad guys, bloodthirsty savages straight out of Team America: World Police. But Dowdle shows a confident hand in the action scenes, which mostly have the kinetic, hand-held, visceral feel of genuine war-zone reportage.
Taking a rare excursion outside his comedy comfort zone, Wilson’s drowsy, laconic, smirking stoner persona is an odd fit for an action-heavy role. He makes it work largely because Dwyer is a suburban Everyman driven to desperate measures to protect his family. Bell, who replaced a pregnant Michelle Monaghan shortly before the shoot, makes the best of her thinly drawn archetype as the hero’s terrified yet capable spouse. Jerins and Geare are both likeable moppets, though their principal function is to serve as vulnerable trophy targets, ramping up the jeopardy stakes.
Loudly telegraphing his hidden depths from the opening act, Brosnan’s slippery anti-hero gets to deliver the film’s sole political statement, a rote reflection on payback for western corporate colonialism. Hammond belongs on the morally ambivalent margins of a Graham Greene novel, yet the Irish-American star plays him with absurdly brash mannerisms and stage-cockney accent, as if channeling one of David Bowie‘s scenery-chewing screen roles. In his prime, Brosnan was never more than a mediocre actor, but in his post-007 years he has blossomed into a truly terrible one.
Essentially one long white-knuckle chase fleshed out with minimal dramatic ballast, No Escape is as emotionally nuanced as a punch in throat. The bombastic score, by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, hammers home the point that this is a thrill ride for the nerves, not the brain. All the same, Dowdle delivers enough adrenalized tension to maintain his track record of profitable, populist pulp.
Production companies: Bold Films, Brothers Dowdle Productions
Cast: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare, Sahajak Boonthanakit
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Screenwriters: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle
Producers: Drew Dowdle, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak
Cinematographer: Leo Hinstin
Editor: Elliot Greenberg
Music: Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders
No rating, 103 minutes
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