REVIEW: “No Escape” (2015)

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No this isn’t Martin Campbell’s grungy 1994 sci-fi survival flick starring Ray Liotta. You remember, the one with the prison island and the two warring prisoner factions? Okay you probably don’t and it’s completely irrelevant anyway. This is the serious and stunningly intense “No Escape” starring (of all people) Owen Wilson and Lake Bell. I know, which idea sounds more outlandish, right?

Well actually this “No Escape” is quite the surprise – a tense and effective action thriller featuring two unexpectedly solid dramatic lead performances. It’s having to endure an almost fashionable smearing from some critics armed with absurd accusations of xenophobia and exploitation. But the movie is far from that. It doesn’t connect all of its dots and there are a couple of narrative hiccups, but to call this movie “xenophobic” is doing it a disservice.

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Wilson and Bell play Jack and Annie Dwyer, a loving and committed couple (somewhat of a rarity in modern movie depictions) and parents of two lovely young daughters. Jack’s new corporate position has him moving his family to Southeast Asia. The move comes with its share of concern especially from Annie. But Jack remains optimistic, feeling this is the best way to provide for his family. The first person they meet is a crusty and scar-faced Pierce Brosnan. He plays Hammonds, a lush of the fellow who we immediately suspect isn’t who he says he is.

Things quickly go south when a violent coup erupts in the city. A Khmer Rouge-like army of rebels begin tearing the intentionally unnamed city apart killing innocent citizens and targeting foreigners. Jack sets out on a frantic and desperate attempt to keep his family safe and get them out of the bloody and chaotic political pressure cooker.

The film is written and directed by brothers John Erick and Drew Dowdle. John Erick is known for dabbling in the horror genre and we get subtle reflections of that in “No Escape”. He spends a lot of time playing with tension and finding ways to move his audience to the edges of their seats. And that’s essentially what this movie is – a terrified family moving from one harrowing situation to another. This linear approach does leave you wanting at times especially when the film tries to cram so much contextual and moral meaning into brief conversations. But in terms of exciting escapist entertainment, the approach works nicely.

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Now to the controversy. Labeling the Dowdle’s movie as “xenophobic”, “morally repugnant”, “reprehensible”, or any of the other similar adjectives I’ve read doesn’t accurately represent this film. Neither the Dowdle’s vision nor their approach is that simplistic. In fact, the film’s greater message touches on spoiled and privileged Western perspectives as well as Western political intervention. You could easily argue that the handling of this messaging is clunky, but at the same time the messages are there and they are very clear.

To go a bit further, the filmmakers took their inspirations from an actual uprising and the movie attempts to maintain a sensitivity to that. This isn’t a film about international meanness towards wholesome, white, middle-class Americans. The murder and brutality is mostly carried out against the people of the city. It’s true, none of citizens are fleshed-out, personal characters, but that doesn’t automatically relegate them to window dressing either and it doesn’t automatically equal exploitation. Instead they serve to highlight the indiscriminate brutality of the uprising while also clearly distinguishing the innocent victims from the perpetrators.

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And I have to go back to Owen Wilson and Lake Bell, two solid performers who aren’t normally associated with this kind of emotionally and physically demanding material. They both give intensely committed performances and you never doubt their characters despite the situations they are in.  They each highlight a much greater range than I knew they possessed.

“No Escape” could have done a better job of giving context and defining the setting behind the violent turmoil that rages through most of the film. And it does spend more time showing Owen Wilson running than developing any character outside of the central family. But it sets its sights on being tightly focused thriller and it sticks to it. Thankfully it does what it does very well. It is a film loaded with thrilling moments and sequences sure to get your heart pounding and frazzle your nerves. “No Escape” makes it easy to overlook its shortcomings because you’ll be so fiercely absorbed in the next stressful encounter. That’s certainly how it was for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars