Paying the piper, karma, “what goes around comes around”: whichever you’d like to call it, John Erick Dowdle’s (As Above, So Below, Devil) No Escape tries to tap into our rich guilt–the shame that we’re profiting at the expense of already-poor countries. It imagines a world where an ignorant and wealthy American family flees from revolutionary rebels who overthrow a government corrupted by America’s corporate and neo-colonial influence.
Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) is moving to an unnamed Southeast Asian country with his wife (Lake Bell) and two kids. When they arrive at their five-star hotel, services begin malfunctioning–the phone is dead and the television is static. The following morning, Jack goes to look for a place that sells American newspapers, but when he finds a vendor whose latest paper is already a few days old, he gets caught in the middle of a violent riot between rebels and loyalists. Soon the streets are overrun by a militia that is executing every Westerner in sight.
Considering that Owen Wilson and Lake Bell wouldn’t be anyone’s first pick to play a badass couple in an action flick, the casting of these main roles carries interesting thematic connotations. Wilson and Bell bring a mundane and commonplace demeanor to archetypes which could’ve been mailed in by a movie star like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (see San Andreas). Even if you don’t buy Wilson and Bell’s acrobatics as action heroes, we believe their embodiment of stereotypical Western values, which is crucial to the film’s exploitation.
But the casting never really contributes to a better whole: something that makes the subtext visceral. No Escape attempts to play on our post-9/11 fears–our forgotten Cold War enemies still remember and will avenge–but the movie should only get points for the same reason you get marks for showing work on a math exam. It may be completely miscalculated on a technical (way too many slow-mo shots and repetitively assembled chase sequences) and tonal basis, yet it’s still on to something: bolstering cinematic scares in real-life horror.
The film is too tonally fractured. There are only outlines of ways to tackle this subject matter that never materialize, except adversely. A well-orchestrated opening sequence has the gloss of an espionage thriller, yet the following few scenes (depicting the family’s ignorance to the collapsing political situation) are heightened satire without the irony, as though the filmmakers are unaware that they have exaggerated the family’s blindness to the political turmoil. We’re supposed to accept that they would be able to fly into this country completely unaware of the unrest and danger while remaining utterly oblivious even after communication services break down. This contrivance, which sets the entire plot in motion, could have furthered the main theme (we ignore our exploitation of crippled countries), but it’s pitched as drama–dark, gritty, and dead-serious drama–and I just couldn’t buy it.
Pierce Brosnan periodically steps in and out with little screen time. He arrives conveniently unannounced to guide our heroes across the bedlam, but Brosnsan, who seems to be acting in a completely different film, brings a breeziness to the drab lifelessness. When his hammy delivery and quick quips become in poor taste, it’s because the tone rambunctiously shifts without reason or flow. You can’t have Brosnan spitting out one-liners immediately after Bell’s character is brutally sexually assaulted; it’s crass and distasteful.
The tone, which is a mish-mash, a hodgepodge, and as well-drawn or coherent as a child’s finger painting, undermines any political themes. We’re told that the rebels are just like Jack, doing whatever possible to protect their family. Because almost every representation of the revolutionaries is a cheesy and over-the-top caricature, this message is in opposition to ridiculous instances like when a barbaric rebel demands Jack’s daughter to hold a gun to her father’s head while laughing villainously. Dowdle can’t reconcile his pulpy inspirations– a zombie movie where the undead have been replaced by blood-thirsty Asians–with his political intents.
They mix as well as ketchup with eggs (I know you might do it, and it’s still gross). At best, you’ll be frustrated, but at worst, if you actually try to dig in, it will make you sick and queasy. Unlike a bad restaurant, there’s no refund and thus, no escape. Yes, that’s a cheap wordplay, but at least it fits tonally with this cheap film.