Part of the escapist fun of horror movies is how they can employ death as the ultimate equalizer. Though billed as an action thriller, No Escape presents a disturbing “What If” scenario in which defining social constructs suddenly mean nothing. Instead of egalitarian xenomorphs relentlessly tearing through any and all humans they encounter, No Escape’s threat is something more tangibly upsetting to Western audiences: a situation where your income, race, nationality, or parenthood don’t keep you safe from violence. It’s a pointed premise that No Escape does almost nothing with.
For the first 20 minutes, all is perfectly wrong with No Escape’s blending of garden-variety xenophobia with the paranoid fear that society could unravel in a heartbeat. Devil and As Above, So Below director John Erick Dowdle (who co-writes No Escape with brother Drew) puts his genre chops to terrific use in the opening sequence, an icy series of tracking shots through the gilded halls of a presidential palace. Some embarrassingly awful ADR aside, the prologue stylishly orchestrates an assassination that’s the opening salvo to all-out anarchy.
After jumping back in time a day, effective title card use and quick character establishment settle No Escape into an ominous calm before the storm. Parents Jack (Owen Wilson) and Annie Dwyer (Lake Bell) are moving their lives and two young daughters halfway around the world. Jack’s work with an industrial water company has forced the Dwyers to make a fresh start for themselves in the unnamed city of No Escape’s unspecified Southeast Asian country (plot geography dictates it’s not Thailand, where the movie was shot). The sympathy-establishing banter between the four principles is cute, and once they step off their plane, the culture shock of being a stranger in a strange land is plenty discomforting enough.
Coddled in a tourist hotel (brochures map out the local terrain like a Disneyland resort), Jack is ignorant of the nation’s greater turmoil until he finds himself staring down a gang of riot police to his left and a rebel militia to his right. All hell breaks loose, and as No Escape tracks Jack’s bewildered flight back to his hotel, adrenaline instinct is all Dowdle needs to follow. Some early close calls with foreigner-killing rebels are plenty tense, but the real panic only sets in once Jack catches his breath inside an elevator. Dowdle wisely holds the camera on Wilson, his laser focus slowly betraying awareness for just how much danger his family is now in.
The beginning of No Escape is like a travel nightmare version of the opening to World War Z, with the Dwyers then having to figure out how to leave the city without hope of outside rescue. Too bad No Escape continues to follow a blockbuster guidebook that gets it mired in brainless plotting and ridiculous action. Plopping a civilian family of four into the middle of a warzone lets the Dowdles exploit audience hypotheticals over what they might do in such a predicament, but any resourcefulness shown by the characters is frequently undone by bombastic execution.
When cornered early on, Jack and Annie have to get themselves and their daughters across a rooftop gap. It’s a frightening obstacle, given the simple physics of the matter. As shot by Dowdle, though, their leap makes for an unintentional laugh riot, with bodies flying through the green screen air in preposterously slow motion. Consistency of tone and visual clarity become early causalities. Moments of reprieve that convincingly show the family’s exhaustion and distress are promptly undone by the messily shot action that follows. Pierce Brosnan mugs around as a mysterious Brit familiar with the landscape, in a role too brief for him to have figured out what kind of movie he’s in. Seconds after preventing an upsetting attempted rape, he and a partner are bickering about how effectively they just killed six people.
Rare overtures to the humanity of the zombielike rioters prove ineffective, as are the attempts by No Escape to cast corporate America as the real perpetrator behind the madness. A clumsy wad of exposition from Brosnan’s character is the only plot-relevant component of an altogether confused working through of past American intervention in the region. A rooftop ambush plays like an inversion of the famous CIA evacuation of Saigon, AK-47-packing rebels scour tall vegetation using red flares, and the Dwyers eventually discover that sanctuary waits for them across the border into Vietnam.
The repetitive cycle of run-hide-action becomes a chore quickly, with the only novelty coming from seeing just how the Dowdles will manage to over-explain or overcook every scene. The climax, which has opposing Asian military forces shouting at each other in English for no discernable reason, comes off like a declaration of surrender. What promise was shown early on has been completely lost in No Escape’s bloody, mangling clash between gritty survivalism and fear-monger spectacle.
No Escape starts like a coup and ends as a quagmire.