Directed by John Erick Dowdle, 2015’s No Escape is particularly ugly entertainment. This hot piece of garbage features a screenplay by the director and his brother Drew Dowdle and plays off some of the most common fears of the average Westerner, with a foreign country proving instinctively hostile to those of the fair-skinned variety.
No Escape is a take on the familiar family-in-peril trope. Zombies did the requisite damage to Brad Pitt’s crew in World War Z and countless horror movies have included variations on the theme. In this case, the “zombies” are human beings with a sound political gripe. No worries, though. They still behave like gibbering lunatics.
Owen Wilson stars as Jack Dwyer, father of Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare) and husband of Annie (Lake Bell). He’s relocating from Austin, Texas, to an unnamed Asian country. After reaching his hotel room, Jack discovers that the Internet is down along with the phone lines and the television. While out looking for a newspaper, he finds himself in the middle of a riot.
Jack races back to the hotel and his family, but the violence is building in the streets. Eventually, the thugs breach the hotel and start targeting Westerners. Jack works to get his family to safety, with the British citizen Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) popping up at opportune moments to help.
No Escape wastes little time on pleasantries and jumps right into the menace. As Jack seeks out his broadsheet, it becomes very apparent that he’s in a foreign land. He wonders if a newsstand has any American newspapers, observes some eels and piles of meat in a market. He’s also greeted with wary eyes by random people, all while the score strikes a sinister tone.
Dowdle and cinematographer Léo Hinstin work the tension by capturing the booming advent of rioters and the riot police. Jack is caught in the middle, which sets up a range of scuttling shots as the American tries to get to safety. The rocky shots do well to induce the proper dose of dread, at least for a while.
Unfortunately, Dowdle’s love of slow-motion gets way out of hand. This is particularly apparent during one of the silliest sequences in recent memory, as the Dwyers chuck their children across a rooftop. The Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders score swells with to accentuate just how hysterical the whole thing is.
No Escape endeavours to avoid the particulars of the rioting and chaos because it doesn’t want to zero in on any particular country. In the process, it pulls off a worse distinction and plays off the most idiotic xenophobic fears. The cluster of zombie-like Asians becomes a delegation for pillaging nonentities and their brutal ways are animalistic and senseless.
The movie becomes all the more problematic when Dowdle trots out Brosnan to attempt some sort of explanation. He suggests that the Western forces have driven this upheaval by buying chunks of the nondescript country and effectively turning the populace into slaves, which should justify the mass revolt to some extent.
Of course, No Escape has no damn interest in such things and one wonders why they bothered with a political explanation in the first place. The mob is ruthless, with raping and beating and killing taking place with sneering aplomb. They don’t speak, apart from emitting little bursts of vicious fury. This lines up all the right scenes, which in turn fuels Jack’s obligatory rise to white knighthood.
Everything about No Escape is designed to keep the intensity rolling along at 11. The score thunders with its drums and kicks. The camera always moves. The family is always in trouble. The blood is always spattering against the stones in the road. And so on.
But it isn’t enough. Dowdle’s singular interest in pressing the B-movie button would work if he wasn’t so insistent on taking the middle path. By rendering his horde of villains as characterless Asians with a legitimate gripe, he dumps toxic waste into the mucky street and sets it on fire. It’s a mess, but at least these goddamn Dwyers know how to toss a kid.