There’s a danger to playing up the cruddy No Escape’s exploitative qualities; it might inspire people to actually see it, merely to bask in the provocation. But no, it’s just plain offensive — and not all that well made, either. No Escape takes the casual xenophobia of something like Taken, crossbreeds it with something altogether more noxious, then asks us to kick back and enjoy the ride. We don’t. We can’t. And the ride isn’t that great to begin with.
Set in an unnamed, mostly nondescript country that mixes elements of Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, No Escape follows the Dwyer family as they relocate from the U.S. to Southeast Asia so dad Jack (Owen Wilson) can work for a big, Western water concern that has bought his own smaller company. It’s a big change for mom Annie (Lake Bell) and their two daughters; Jack doesn’t appear to have consulted with them before accepting the new position. On their plane, they meet Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), a British expatriate with a hand injury (“Got in a fight with a tiger”) and a head injury (“Fell down a flight of stairs in Hong Kong”) and who has bits of wisdom to dispense about the local cabbies (“Bunch of con artists!”) and the local women (“So eager to please!”).
Anyway, the cabs are the least of the Dwyer family’s problems, because a sudden coup in the country means that they are soon being attacked by red-bandanna-wearing guerrillas who shoot, machete, and run over everybody in sight. After this point, the film becomes essentially one long chase, as our helpless family tries to survive a rooftop helicopter slaughter, an office massacre, a tank attack, and much, much more — including an attempted rape. There’s a nutty scene where Jack has to literally toss his daughters off a rooftop and have Annie catch them on another rooftop. (My colleagues Kyle Buchanan and Jennifer Vineyard wrote about the scene here.) Not only do the physics of the scene look thoroughly unconvincing, there’s also this nameless local right behind the Dwyers, hanging out on the edge of the frame, who helps them and is then summarily blown away. That’s because every local in this place is either a deranged lunatic or helpless cannon fodder.
There’s one good idea in No Escape, which is the notion of instinct overcoming instinct. At one point, one of the girls whispers that she has to go potty, as they’re hiding from the rebels; Annie quietly, painfully encourages her daughter to go in her pants. It’s totally unnatural for the girl to do so — just as it’s totally unnatural for Jack and Annie to toss their kids off rooftops, or to bash people in the head. Their survival instinct keeps them from throwing themselves off a building — but somehow, they have to override it.
Okay, yes, fine, No Escape isn’t trying to be a political thriller. The director John Erick Dowdle specializes in horror, and he’s even made a couple of decent ones (including the solid [REC] remake Quarantine and the not-entirely-awful supernatural elevator thriller Devil). Here, he attempts to find scares in something resembling the real world, presumably to give this genre piece a more disturbing, plausible kick. These aren’t zombies or demons but real people doing terrible things — except that they might as well be zombies or demons, given the way the film presents its faceless Asian killers.
No Escape then adds insult to injury by including a late-inning speech by Brosnan’s character that tries to justify the guerrillas’ actions by talking about third-world debt and the shameless actions of “our countries, and the corporations that run them.” Which somehow makes everything that much worse — because these faceless soldiers, unlike our lily-white heroes, don’t cede an inch, or show any mercy, or compassion, or complexity. That’s probably intentional, too, and indulging our subconscious fear of the Other might have been a provocative idea. But No Escape does it so cheaply, so clunkily, that we’re not compelled or even disturbed by it — we’re sickened and embarrassed.