White-knuckled in the non-traditional sense, Owen Wilson’s new mostly racist thriller brings up too many problematic storytelling elements to ever be considered a legitimately good movie. In a film where water is the stand-in for oil and an unnamed Asian race is a stand-in for Muslim, the thrills never circumvent the larger issues that plague this late August release. Is it a surprise that this is coming out in Hollywood’s dead season? No, clearly not.
Owen Wilson is Jack Dwyer, an engineer displaced from work in the U.S., which leads him overseas to what we presume is either Cambodia or Thailand to oversee a project that puts an American corporation in charge of the locals’ water supply, either for energy or for other resources, it’s never explained. What we do know is that a coup filled with hundreds of upset citizens are attacking the town, its officials, and its American visitors and inhabitants to broadcast their anger over the outsourced company and its presence in Asia. When Jack sees this, he makes his way back to his family: wife Annie (Lake Bell) and daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare). With some convenient help from grizzled undercover agent Pierce Brosnan, the Dwyers have to escape the town alive and seek refuge in a place not already destroyed by the rebellion.
A ton of reviews have stated that this film reaches the status of xenophobia, a sentiment that I disagree with. Although there are some clear mistakes in storytelling, it never appears to be the filmmakers intention to dehumanize the Asian citizens. They are merely a plot convenience, which is wrong, racist, and indefensible, but does not rise to the level of xenophobia. This same idea really could only be applied to a Middle Eastern conflict in corrupt governments, but it’s obvious that director John Dowdle (also of Devil, Quarantine, and As Above/So Below), wanted to avoid that altogether. Instead, we get a mean-spirited view of Asian people where everyone wants to kill the helpless, middle-class white people. The way the nationalities are treated is tasteless, and does detract from the overall quality.
Toward the end, we get a Pierce Brosnan explanation as to why this is happening. His answer is so shoddy, saying that the violent coup only is doing this for their families as well, is just not true. After hundreds are dead and we get an almost-rape scene, we cannot sympathize with the actors the film has so desperately forced into our faces as a villain. The film makes us view the Cambodians as enemies, and some small speech does not fix the over-plot of the movie, especially when the motivation for such a violent rebellion doesn’t make enough sense. Frustration at an American company moving in, sure. Frustrated enough to murder, rape, chop up, and run over everyone with a large Jeep? ….I certainly hope not.
The film attempts to relentlessly build suspense, to limited results. Some of the action set-pieces are done pretty well, with solid performances by Wilson, Bell, and Brosnan adding veteran leadership to the film. Wilson has to save his family, and we care, mostly because of his kids, who despite being mere caricatures asking little kid questions like ‘when can I go potty?’ manage to bring a sense of despair to all of this. We want Wilson to succeed for a few reasons, but his ignorance in the surrounding events is a bit frustrating. He manages to be so impeccably on his game, and so impeccably not at the same time. Scenes of sprinting through back-streets and climbing up walls are really gritty and well-done, but the dialogue is enough of a mess to immediately shut down once the running stops.
The tension is also cut when first-time action director Dowdle turns to slow motion. It’s not just one scene, as he does it frequently and incessantly. The slo-mo becomes comical and once you start laughing as this film slowly heads off the rails, it’s admittedly tough to get back on. I didn’t until a very unnerving scene with a gun happens almost an hour later. Much of this is repetitive, and even the action becomes dated and stale without any hand-to-hand but lots of slo-mo.
As for a late-August thrill-fest, it’s not awful. No Escape is badly comical and features decent enough performances to work itself out of very disappointing territory. Wild scenes (like the infamous trailer ‘throw your kids across the building’ scenes) tend to actually work because the stakes are so high in this. Touching parenting moments break up the uniformly horrible script, and for every good action set, there’s another with a dated, shaky look to it. Morally reprehensible but still pretty watchable, No Escape may be worth a viewing on a very boring night. If you’re easily offended or don’t like violence, this clearly is not for you.