The Weinstein Company presents a film directed by John Erick Dowdle. Written by John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle. Produced by Drew Dowdle, David Lancaster, Michael Litvak. Photographed by Léo Hinstin. Music by Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders. Edited by Elliot Greenberg. Production designed by Arvinder Grewel. Starring Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sahajak Boonthanakit.
“Don’t ever travel abroad” is the main takeaway of No Escape, a xenophobic, unpleasant and overall icky action thriller that casts Owen Wilson and Lake Bell as parents of a family (including two sweet young girls) that flies to a country on the eve of revolution and finds itself fighting for survival. This place looks vaguely Southeast Asian, but the movie keeps its setting mysteriously unnamed. “Welcome to Asia,” says grizzled expat Pierce Brosnan to Wilson upon arrival. So that narrows it down. Eventually we learn that this violent locale borders Vietnam, which means it’s either Cambodia or Laos, but let’s not think too much; the Vietnam reveal is a deus ex machina for director John Erick Dowdle and his brother/co-writer Drew, who end this screenplay as if they had a bus to catch. The movie was actually shot in nearby Thailand, whose tourism board will probably not be mentioning this fact very much.
The Dowdles are horror veterans (Devil and As Above, So Below) who have decided to filter this material through their typical lens, which proves to be a huge mistake. Early moments are filled with ominous portents for Jack Dwyer (Wilson) and Annie Dwyer (Bell). The phones don’t work at their hotel, and Wilson’s attempt to find a USA Today is met with death glares. Wilson is outside when the revolution sparks (a shot showing him literally caught between a group of armored police and an angry mob is typical of the movie’s ham-fisted visual strategy), and when violence strikes, the entire populace degenerates into a mindless horde straight out of a zombie film, except capable of firing automatic weapons and screaming foreign epithets. Not a drop of humanity is bestowed on these frothing, mad-dog thugs; during a brief rooftop reprieve, Wilson sums up the movie’s philosophy: “I don’t know why they’re doing this, they just are.” Later, there is third-party speculation about displeasure with Western corporations (including the one Jack works for) holding countries’ finances hostage under a cloak of good intentions, but this is delivered sketchily and toothlessly—the movie mainly sees its antagonists as pop-up villains worthy of a video game. Not even other victims are spared the movie’s perverse apathy; more than once a helpful side character (Vietnamese, French, whatever) tangentially assists the Dwyers, is murdered for their trouble and then is never thought of again.
Throughout this endless film, the Dwyers are mercilessly punished. At one moment Jack has to toss his daughters off a roof in slow motion for Annie to catch. Then one of the girls is told at gunpoint to shoot her own father. Annie is captured at one point and the threat of rape pointedly hangs in the air, because where would we be without that? The family is eventually coated with blood, mud, dirt, sweat, urine and tears. There’s fistfights, gunfights, running and jumping and it’s all so cheap and exploitative that it becomes quickly nauseating. Sometimes Pierce Brosnan magically shows up and gets the Dwyers out of trouble. Then they get right back into trouble. And so on.
Wilson is miscast as the Dwyer patriarch; he’s at home more with amiable, shaggy comedy, and his everyman qualities feel lateral to the material, not part of it. Bell’s performance, on the other hand, is anger-inducing, because she ably carries the movie’s emotional weight while surrounded by pure schlock. Her scenes of desperately trying to protect her daughters are so wrenching and vivid that it becomes clear that the movie doesn’t deserve her. Brosnan’s whole role is a self-satisfied wink. “CIA?” he’s asked. “Something like that,” he smiles. Uh-huh. Earlier he’s found performing at a karaoke bar, possibly as a reference to the tone-deaf crooning he lent to Mama Mia, although it also may be another one of the movie’s clumsy attempts at conjuring dread.
The end of summer always brings a film like No Escape: a film made arguably for no one, dumped into August so it can await the sweet release of a quick and empty box office. To ask “Was this movie necessary?” is irrelevant, it’ll be forgotten quickly and will occasionally show up at 3AM on cable, which was invented specifically so that you could escape garbage like this.