One aspect of violent revolutions that is easily overlooked in our history lessons is collateral damage, or more specifically, the misfortunate, uninitiated bystanders caught in the crossfire. While the actual participants in a revolutionary coup are more significant, both historically and for the sake of storytelling, it creates an interesting emotional tension and sense of urgency to see bewildered innocents suddenly thrown into the middle of a war zone. Something similar was done in Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004), wherein Don Cheadle’s character must try to protect his family as a horrific genocide takes place all around, although in this instance he was a native Rwandan rather than a foreigner. However, while Hotel Rwanda generally excels in portraying the events of an actual genocide through the eyes of someone who only wants to ensure his family’s safety, John Erick Dowdle’s No Escape is a mixed bag that offers legitimate tension, but not much else.
No Escape takes place in an unspecified South East Asian country, though it was filmed in Thailand and is pretty obvious in its attempts to recreate the coup d’état that took place there in 2014. Of course, in order to shoot on location in Thailand, the filmmakers had to try to obscure the precise language and ethnicity of the locals. In the film, a man named Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) is on a flight with his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), and their two daughters, Lucy and Briegel. Jack works for a water systems company called Cartiff, and is being relocated to South East Asia as part of a business deal with the local government. Unbeknownst to Jack and his family, armed rebels have just assassinated the prime minister, and violent confrontations are taking place all over the country as a result. When the rebels are able to overpower the police forces, Jack and his family become trapped in their hotel and must find a way to escape the carnage with the help of a mysterious British man named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan).
The first thing one notices when sitting down to watch this film is the rather strange choices in casting. Both Owen Wilson and Lake Bell are generally known for comedic roles, and while they have both ventured into more dramatic territory, it is difficult to separate them from their comedic roots when they’re working across from each other in the same film. So, from start to finish, it is hard to take either of them seriously, even though the film is clearly meant to be taken seriously. They have very little chemistry as a couple on screen, and whenever they show real emotion, one is tempted to laugh, as if they are purposefully overacting for comedic effect. The only real “comedy” in the film comes from Hammond’s sidekick, a man called “Kenny Rogers” because of his obsession with the American singer. Nothing he says or does is all that funny, but apparently an Asian man obsessed with Kenny Rogers is supposed to be funny in and of itself, so he offers us our only respite from the drama.
This brings me to the next point, which is that the film works way too hard to appeal to mainstream audiences. Kenny Rogers epitomizes this. In a film about a violent coup d’état, why would we even need comedic relief? Honestly, there is nothing worse than a story about a serious subject matter that insists on trying to make us feel good once every twenty minutes so that it doesn’t come across as too much of a “downer.” It’s incredibly condescending to the audience and one of the first signs that a film is just not all that good. Additionally, No Escape is a thriller that is about as by-the-books as they come. Every line and situation, if stripped of the specific actors and circumstances of the narrative, could have been taken from any other mediocre thriller made within the last few decades. Each time the family escapes one seemingly inescapable scenario, they are faced with another barrier that needs overcoming. By the end, the film is more about human spirit and family values than it is about any revolution.
Though its predictability is frustrating, there is technically a reason for it. So many thrillers use the same scenarios and cinematic techniques because they work really well at creating tension. Even if the film is horrible or completely unbelievable (which certainly applies to No Escape at times), it is entertaining and really makes us worry about the safety of the characters, even in a Hollywood bizarro-world where no one important seems capable of dying. Thankfully, the locales and setting are interesting, so it largely makes up for a plot structure that is grossly derivative.
The final point that I take issue with is the discomforting level of xenophobia in No Escape. Naturally, the protagonists are white Americans, horrified and threatened by the “restless natives.” While there are a few key “bad guys” among the hordes of nondescript Asians, they are generally just treated as machete and gun-wielding barbarians, ridiculously hell-bent on punishing Jack for what turns out to be really a contrived reason. So, while it is theoretically interesting to see someone from the outside experiencing a violent takeover firsthand, this film does it in perhaps the worst way possible: at the expense of the real victims.
In short, while No Escape is certainly entertaining and not an entirely forgettable film, it fails to venture into any new territory, and only offers a brief and mildly racist view of Thailand’s history and South East Asian culture as a whole.
No Escape is available to purchase via Amazon here.
Rating: ★★ out of 5