A tense thriller that never lets up for a second, ‘No Escape’ is an unexpected little late summer gem. It’s dialed up high on action and suspense with only the bare minimum of setup necessary to get there, featuring a pair of unexpected action leads who do their jobs tremendously well, and one old veteran of the genre making a welcome return. Some of the political correctness of the material might be somewhat questionable, but the success rate of the genre beats is undeniable.
Owen Wilson stars as Jack Dwyer, a failed Texas engineer forced to move his family to Indonesia to accept a job at a water purification plant in order to avoid financial ruin. His wife Annie (Lake Bell) reluctantly yet supportively comes along with their two daughters. On the plane ride over, they meet Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), a Cockney ne’er-do-well who bums around third-world countries with mysteriously nefarious intent.
The family settles into a hotel for one awkward night and then Jack pops out to wander the streets the next morning to get a lay of the land. Unfortunately, the timing for the trip couldn’t be worse. Jack soon stumbles into a full-on revolution that turns violent fast. Even worse, the revolt is against American corporations poisoning local culture, the rebels are killing Americans in the streets, and they’re specifically heading towards the Dwyers’ hotel to take out everyone in sight. The family is forced to flee for their lives and hide for the next unrelenting 90 minutes.
The film comes from director John Erick Dowdle (along with his brother and writing partner Drew Dowdle), whose career up to this point has been limited to horror flicks like the deeply disturbing ‘The Poughkeepsie Tapes’ and the underrated ‘As Above, So Below‘. As a result, Dowdle knows a thing or two about tension and has absolutely no qualms about pushing his violent subject matter to the limit. From the moment the initial danger is established, Dowdle barely gives the audience a second to breathe. If the family isn’t in the midst of being hunted with bodies graphically falling around them, then they’re hiding in alleys, pulling clothing from corpses, and struggling to find a means of escape. Dowdle holds nothing back. When action erupts, it’s completely vicious and visceral. Set-pieces rarely feel like the highlights of conventional action movies, but awkward behavior by clumsy adults under pressure. (A highlight occurs when the parents are forced to jump across a building and throw their children over, which is painful, unpredictable and even breathtaking.)
In Wilson and Bell, Dowdle wisely cast two performers you’d never expect to be heroes yet are up to the task. Though Wilson has dabbled in a little action in the past, he’s most known for comedy. That’s true for Bell as well. As a result, they never feel like they have superhuman action hero abilities. They’re tired humans under pressure. They commit to their roles with weary-eyed naturalism, and Dowdle puts them through a wringer of pain, fear and torment. Both deliver on the extreme physical and emotional demands of their roles and prove to be legitimate, if unconventional action stars.
Brosnan, on the other hand, falls a little more into a conventional action hero role. He seems to be an offbeat weirdo at first and dives into the role with energy and humor that hasn’t been seen from the performer in years. Eventually, the true nature of his character is revealed and he becomes more the predictable action rogue that we’re used to. He even has the movie’s cheesiest moment – and yes there’s plenty of cheese because Dowdle can only keep his mix of naturalism, suspense and action pumping for so long before it tips over into melodrama.
For the most part, the filmmaker finds the right balance and forces his characters into their extraordinary actions through difficult choices. However, as the movie nears the climax, it stretches a little outside the realm of reality into cornball territory. Likewise, as much as the movie tries to counterbalance this by justifying the Indonesian rebels’ action as a response to Imperialist American evil, there’s a slight discomfort to be had when the villains of a movie are the faceless mass of another race. Their motives may be sound and the decision to avoid subtitles might mimic the confusion of the protagonists, but at times it feels a bit icky and simplistic to transform an entire people into psychotic murders. (Fortunately, some kindly characters near the end soften things.)
Thankfully, Dowdle gets enough right in ‘No Escape’ that he avoids the moments of cheese toppling over the delicate realism of the piece, and there are just enough touches of humanism in the Indonesian people depicted on screen to avoid accusations of racism. ‘No Escape’ might not be a perfect movie, but it’is one hell of a wild ride for folks who like their thrills twisted and intense.