It takes a lot for a film to turn a potent concept and completely mess it up. Somehow, No Escape comes pretty close to being a total mess, thanks to a series of mind-numbing shakicam chase scenes, awkward attempts at political commentary, and some decisions involving two characters which are nothing short of infuriating. Plus, there’s a xenophobic core to the film that the film attempts to address in one speech, but it does little to quell this glaring issue.
No Escape follows Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), an American civil engineer who’s moving to an unnamed Asian country with his family, only to wake up after their first night in the midst of a rebel coup. The coup is the result of the government’s ties to Western multinationals, including Jack’s new bosses at a water-pump producer named Cardiff. (That the company’s way of welcoming Jack is to hang a banner with his photo on it in the lobby of his hotel is one of many baffling decisions.) With the rebels killing any and all foreigners, Jack, his wife Annie (Lake Bell), and their two young daughters have to outrun a series of nameless rebels who, as the film halfheartedly acknowledges, may have some point in their anger.
The film starts promisingly enough, with director/co-writer John Erick Dowdle nicely building tension and connecting pieces that have a payoff when the rebellion starts. But once the rebellion reaches Jack, the film becomes messy. Scenes are sloppily edited, with some scenes shown sped up, slowed down, or both. The scenes are further dragged down, though, by the children. I believe it’s fair to expect that children might not be the most adept at maneuvering in highly charged situations like this, but the children here are flat-out clear hinderances on their parents attempts to save them, making one bone-headed decision after another. I found myself rooting for the children to die. That’s not a good sign. Though maybe they’re a good representation of the cluelessness of Americans to global issues.
A bigger problem, though, is the way the story is framed. The coup is pinned on Cardiff, while it makes their employee and his family the only characters audiences are supposed to care about (though that obviously backfires with two of them). The people chasing them can’t even be identified as belonging to a specific country. I can only guess this was an attempt not to offend any particular country; since this nameless country does border Vietnam, guesses could be made, but the film was shot in Thailand, features Cambodian music on the street and includes signage in upside-down Khmer. It’s an attempt at obscuring that inadvertently feeds into tendencies to group eastern Asian countries together, which is further cemented by the fact that absolutely zero of the people chasing after the Dwyers are distinguishable from one another. At one point, to save his family, Jack brutally kills one of the unnamed rebels, and he shows not even a slight sense of remorse over his actions. The people of the unnamed country aren’t people; they’re obstacles to overcome.
In spite of the film’s many issues, it does have a certain level of watchability, thanks to the performances of its adult leads. Brosnan works best as a globetrotter with detailed knowledge of the region, in part because he goes big with his performance. As the film’s leads, Wilson and Bell do surprisingly well playing against type. It’s just too bad they’re delivering worthwhile performances in a film that doesn’t deserve them.