By Chaz Lipp
The trailer looked great. An American family is trapped somewhere in Southeast Asia, caught in the midst of a violent uprising. Director John Erick Dowdle can do tension quite believably – see his 2008 horror thriller Quarantine. So where does No Escape go wrong? Dowdle and his screenwriting partner (brother Drew) get far too ambitious. What begins as a relentless adrenaline rush, with engineer Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) and his family finding themselves most unwelcome strangers in a strange land, gradually loses credibility as the action heroics are amped up. Worse yet is the “yellow peril” racism that becomes a running motif as generic Asian extras rampage as mindlessly as zombies. There’s also a pretentious “American corporations are evil” theme that burdens the film with more weight than it can bear.
Jack, wife Annie (Lake Bell), and their two preteen children (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare) are initially portrayed as believably clueless and ill-prepared for the basic shift in lifestyle they’re about to experience. Jack has taken a job with a big water company, but the citizens of this unnamed Asian country are armed and ready for violent protest of what they see as a corporate raid on their natural resources. The assassination of the country’s prime minister sparks all-out chaos as much of the population takes up arms and begins killing everyone in sight, their blood lust directed especially toward Americans.
Throughout the first half of No Escape, the Dwyers’ survival instinct kicks in as they try to move forward in search of the U.S. Embassy. This is where director Dowdle mostly succeeds in terms of pure action mechanics. He indulges in some corny slow motion at times, but for the most part its easy to get caught up in Jack and his family’s confusion and utter terror as they leap from rooftops, hide wherever they can find a shrouded spot, and attempt to disguise themselves. A mercenary named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), whom they first met at their hotel with no awareness of his combat abilities, offers what help he can. But gradually the Brothers Dowdle lose their grip on the story.
The Asian citizens are treated as a mass of mostly vicious assailants. For all the depth they’re afforded, the rioting throngs may as well be an army of space aliens or even the walking dead. Whatever value Dowdle’s anti-foreign meddling thesis may have, it’s simply not developed enough to have any significant impact. When Hammond literally stops the narrative momentum to deliver a rambling, poorly composed monologue about why the Western world is wholly responsible for Third World uprisings, it fairly well stamps “Message!” across the screen (where’s Keenan Ivory Wayans when you need him?). The problem is that No Escape, bolstered by satisfyingly realistic performances by Wilson and Bell, only works when it’s not trying to think so hard.