When Owen Wilson last starred in a straight-out action movie, in “Behind Enemy Lines” (2001), the picture carried a quantity of jingoistic chauvinism that was positively leaden. So does his new one, where Wilson is an American Everyman struggling to save his family from faceless hordes of foreign devils. Though the setting is contemporary, “No Escape”—a title that, one must note, proves singularly inappropriate, since there are hair’s-breadth escapes aplenty—is a throwback to the days of “Gunga Din” or “55 Days in Peking.”
Wilson plays Jack Dwyer, an Austin engineer fallen on hard times who moves his family—wife Annie (Lake Bell) and young daughters Lucy and Breeze (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare)—from Texas to an unnamed country in Southeast Asia (the picture was shot in picturesque Thailand), where he’s taken a job with a company that claims to be improving the local water system. No sooner do they arrive than a revolution breaks out, Jack is trapped between armed protesters and riot police in the street, and the whole family finds itself threatened by machete, club and gun-wielding rebels who attack the guests in their ritzy hotel. The Dwyers make their way to the roof, the first of many locales from which they will be forced to beat a hasty retreat as the pursuers continue their quest to exterminate perfidious westerners along with the forces of the government they’re intent on bringing down and its local supporters.
The movie is essentially one long, repetitive chase in the course of which there are no fewer than three very close shaves (one of which involves a near rape of Annie, another the near execution of Jack) and both parents are each compelled to kill one of their attackers. The girls squeal and shiver, and the only significant help comes from a Brit named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) whom they’d met at the airport. Hammond and his buddy (Sahajak Boonthanakit), a local so devoted to singer Kenny Rogers that he’s even taken his name, rescue the Dwyer brood at one particularly tense moment and then take them to spend the night in a brothel that’s somehow escaped any danger. It’s during that encounter that Hammond offers what passes as the script’s only explanation for the frenzy against Americans and other westerners. He explains that he’s a member of British intelligence who, like others of his ilk from other countries, smooth the way for corporations to makes such enormous loans to third-world countries that their governments become utterly indebted to the creditors. In the present case, he explains, the water project Jack was intended to work on involved the imposition of taxes on water, leading to the uprising by the disgruntled populace.
As Hammond explains it, the rioters are just men like Jack, trying to protect their families. But of course that doesn’t mean they’re portrayed as anything other than murderous marauders, hacking and beating away indiscriminately at practically anybody unlucky enough to get in their way and executing people in gruesome public demonstrations. They’re also persistent, a group of them following the Dwyers as they make their way through streets, buildings and the ruins of the American embassy toward the river that serves as the country’s border. (This may be the first Hollywood movie in which the Vietnamese, who are manning the opposite shore, are portrayed as heroic saviors.) There are a few locals who offer assistance: Hammond’s friend Kenny, the keeper at a religious shrine and a fellow willing to trade his little boat for a watch and a pair of shoes. But they’re the rare exceptions among a population that’s depicted as a bunch of bloodthirsty, sadistic goons. By contrast the dictator, who apparently heads a military government and is assassinated in an opening prologue, is portrayed as a decorous, sophisticated type.
In fairness, “No Escape” works in spurts as viscerally exciting pulp. The direction of John Erick Dowdle is proficient, as is Leo Hinston’s cinematography and Elliot Greenberg’s editing (though the abrupt switch to slow-mo at several points dulls the effect rather than enhancing it). The music score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders adds what sounds like some bamboo-stick clatter to the predictable propulsive throbs. As to the cast, all of them run around so much that you feel exhausted just watching them, but Wilson overcomes his usual doofus persona to emerge as a likable guy thrust into a terrible situation, and Bell brings a whiff of authenticity to her relatively stock role as supportive mother. Jerins and Geare can frankly get annoying, but Brosnan is at his gruffly efficient best as a lesser James Bond gone to seed and trying to drown the regret he’s feeling for past actions in booze.
In the end, though, “No Escape” isn’t an awful lot different from a horror movie in which a family is chased down by monsters. (It should come as no surprise that that’s the genre in which the Dowdle brothers have previously specialized.) It’s the identity of the monsters in this case that might make you a little queasy. This is a crudely efficient action potboiler marred by a distinctly unenlightened attitude.