No Escape (2015)
Directed by: John Erick Dowdle
Premise: An American family moves to an Asian country and within hours they must go on the run in the midst of a violent coup.
What Works: No Escape is a tight action thriller in the vein of movies like Black Hawk Down or The Raid and it is as intense and as visceral a cinematic experience as those titles. The movie primarily works because it sets up characters who are real and empathetic. Lake Bell and Owen Wilson are cast as parents to a pair of daughters, played by Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare. They form a believable family unit; the filmmakers use the opening scenes to set up the family dynamics and that’s done in a brief but very effective way. The family has relocated to Southeast Asia following the failure of the father’s business and everyone is stressed from the move to this unfamiliar place. The simultaneous love and tension among their family is very real and makes the characters empathetic. The pressure increases from there but the moviemakers do an effective job of managing the tension. The first portion of the story is a slow burn as the family settles into a hotel and the country descends into chaos. Once the action kicks in No Escape is brutal and intense. Director John Erick Dowdle, who had previously helmed Quarantine, maintains a palatable tension throughout the film. The action of No Escape is done in a mostly credible way. It looks less like the cartoonish action of movies like The Avengers and instead has a gritty style and a realistic scale. Among the standout scenes is a rooftop sequence in which the family must jump from one building to the next. This scene showcases a very intense sense of peril and the action has a visceral impact as the characters accumulate injuries in their attempt to escape. The filmmakers never give themselves over to the macho thrills of action movies; the violence of No Escape is always to be dreaded and Owen Wilson’s father figure never transforms into an action hero. He’s a guy just trying to get his family to safety and the movie is generally evenhanded between the two parents as they work together to save their daughters.
What Doesn’t: A lot of the press coverage of No Escape has argued that the movie is racist. For the most part this criticism has been overstated. No Escape operates on the fear of being an outsider in a strange land and it does that very well. With all due respect to the interest of diversity and cultural sensitivity, the fact is that stories have to take place somewhere and the violence of No Escape is not unprecedented in real life. That said, the movie does use the Asian setting in a generic way. It is never actually specified what country this is although it must be either Laos or Cambodia since the Vietnam border figures into the story. The vagueness of the setting reflects a view of Asia as a homogenous place and little context is provided for the violence. Late in the picture an explanation for the coup is given but it’s never dealt with in a substantive way and doesn’t change the viewer’s understanding of the violence. No Escape is also problematic in the same way as 2012’s The Impossible. In that film a Western family vacationing in Thailand is caught up in the 2004 tsunami. The Impossible was well made but it was also a bit naïve; a nation and its people were devastated by a natural disaster but in the end everything was okay because the white Western family made it out. The same criticism applies to No Escape in which a nation is turned upside down by a coup d’atat but all that matters is whether or not the Americans can get to safety. No Escape works very well as an A-to-Z action thriller but the filmmakers write themselves into a few narrative corners which they get out of by relying on coincidences, usually involving a mysterious British tourist played by Pierce Brosnan showing up to save the day.
Bottom Line: No Escape is a very effective thriller. This is not a deep picture and its regard for the Asian setting is problematic but as a piece of action cinema it is an exceptionally well executed movie that puts the audience on the edge of their seats and keeps them there.
Episode: #558 (September 6, 2015)