Having suffered a significant stumble with last year’s subterranean found-footage thriller As Above/So Below, the brother filmmaking team of John Erick and Drew Dowdle found themselves searching for the bright promise they once showed with such films as The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007), Quarantine (2008), and Devil (2010), each of which went on to commercial success.
Next up in their growing repertoire is No Escape, an international suspense thriller that represents a significant departure from their horror roots and unfortunately shows a level of discomfort with that unfamiliar territory. They hoped for a film that emphasizes the importance and strength of family in times of peril, but instead wound up with a racially-charged piece of sensationalism.
No Escape has its moments. In fact, quite a few as we’re taken on a breathtaking escape where danger and very bad guys lurk around every corner. But for every white-knuckle gut punch, there are two of those ridiculously contrived “a parent wouldn’t really do that” moments that snap us out of the instant and send us searching for the bag of popcorn.
Owen Wilson is Jack Dwyer, an environmental engineer about to start a new job with family in tow at an unnamed Asian country. As the film opens, the country’s Prime Minister is assassinated in a coup launched by a ragtag rebel army while Jack’s plane is in final descent. Almost immediately the family gets thrust into survival mode as heavily-armed gangs of roving rebels roam the city and are quickly descending upon the family’s hotel. A quick glance out the window reveals an escalating scenario, one that Jack knows he can’t afford to hide from his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and two young daughters. People are being savagely slaughtered in the streets while the city seems to be exploding in violence. The remainder of the film involves a battle for survival as the family tries to get to the American embassy in a primal struggle to stay alive.
There’s a deep sense of futility permeating nearly every scene of No Escape. The family members face one inescapable situation after another. Everywhere they turn there’s another gang of bandana-clad bad guys who line up to chop, dice, mutilate, and shoot their victims with reckless and bloody abandon. We get it, these guys are ruthless. But in the familiar fashion of the best movie cliches, Jack and family pull one “MacGyver” after another -- including the reality-stretching scenario of hurtling their daughters from rooftop to rooftop -- to escape the bad guys in their race to the embassy.
Any parent knows that not a single real-life scenario exists that would prompt a parent to throw a child from one rooftop to another in this manner. Not to mention that the feat would require being able to hurl a child the distance of a city block. In times of extreme danger we hug, protect, and will do anything to be near our offspring at all costs. Nor would we ever leave them alone, hidden in a dark alley with just a whispery shush, but that’s what happens throughout No Escape. “You stay right here, Sweety, and don’t move while I go kick this bad guy’s ass.” We just don’t buy it -- and it happens time and time again.
Another of the film’s shortcomings is a local populace that’s never fully defined. Instead, they are broadly illustrated as either filthy street vendors, thugs, hoodlums, and murderous rebels or in the case of their cowboy hat-wearing taxi driver, a stereotyped token who calls himself Kenny Rogers due to his admiration for the American singer. The depiction may not be outright racist, but it definitely smells of racial overtones.
Situated smack dab in the doldrums of the late August dumping ground, No Escape can suffice as thrilling popcorn entertainment until the good ones get here. And it’s a pleasure to see Bell and Wilson perform adequately outside their comedy comfort zones. Also, in today’s world of political uncertainty, the premise boasts an unmistakably chilling sense of gravitas and authenticity that rattles the soul. But those hoping for a return to form by the Dowdles will have to tap the brakes, for this one isn’t it.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated “R” for strong violence including a sexual assault, and for language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.