If what you’re seeking in the doldrums of August is stomach-churning, eye-watering suspense, “No Escape” delivers just that — but falls short with a tone-deaf story and extremely xenophobic worldview. Clearly brother filmmaking duo Drew and John Erick Dowdle were not paying attention to the backlash that greeted “The Impossible,” which followed the plight of a rich, white family’s desperate escape from the Thai tsnumai, at the expense of the stories of the Thai people. “No Escape” ups the ante on this family in peril theme — this time with our protagonists caught up in a bloody revolutionary coup, where nameless native people are either being killed in the streets or stalking our hero, Jack (Owen Wilson), in order to kill him in the street. The result is a fast-paced, tension-filled ride with a desperately ugly outlook.
Jack’s found himself in the anonymous Southeast Asian country (zero effort is put forth to identify this land or its people in even a perfunctory way) for his new job, working for a water company. Upon arriving with his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and two daughters, Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare), the family is confronted with unsettling foreign dangers, like taxi cabs and fish markets. They aren’t there longer than eight hours before rebels are executing Americans in the streets and chopping up every person in the hotel with machetes.
Possessed with a near-alarming self-preservation instinct, Jack grabs his family to make a run for it, and proves himself to be not as dopey and naive as he initially seems. They manage to stay 10 steps ahead of the bloodthirsty rebels, who are in the streets, waving a banner with his face on it while shooting buildings down with tanks and helicopters. They manage to stay ahead of this danger by pushing in front of other survivors, using dead brown bodies as shields, stealing clothes and vehicles from said dead bodies, and doing quite a bit of self-defense killing themselves.
The action almost saves the film; there are quite a few set pieces of truly nail-biting moments, exacerbated by excessive use of slow motion, as well as a jack-booted score that ominously marches throughout. The trailer-touted scene of the Dwyers tossing their girls from rooftop to rooftop hits with a thudding and visceral intensity, as well as the initial street clash between the rebels and army (who quickly, and inexplicably, disappear).
But for all the thrills and chills, you just can’t shake an icky feeling. The Southeast Asians — only one of them a named character, who goes by “Kenny Rogers” — are either savage murderers or cannon fodder the Dwyers step on to get out. Pierce Brosnan pops up as a mysterious British expat/guardian angel, saving the Dwyers from the darker of the possible traumas, and offering a quick explainer about the revolution. Obviously, it’s in reaction to the influence of post-modern colonial capitalism, so it actually is Jack’s fault, though Brosnan takes the fall.
Unfortunately, “No Escape” can’t stay 10 steps ahead of its misguided politics and overly dramatic storytelling, and crumbles under its own preposterous climactic denouement. Ultimately, the experience will inevitably become just another family story for the Dwyers. If only we could have heard a story from the anonymous people of the nameless country that’s left in bloody flames.