Silver Screen: No Escape *
In the thriller No Escape, melancholy comedian Owen Wilson puts on a serious face unused since 2001’s Behind Enemy Lines. He stars as a man of action named Jack— because capable white guys in khaki pants are frequently named Jack in movies.
This particular Jack, Jack Dwyer (not Jacks Ryan, Bauer, Traven, Shepard, et cetera), is a family man fallen on hard times. Following the demise of the company he started, the humbled engineer is forced to relocate his family to an unnamed southeast Asian country. There he’ll work for an international water company while he and his family reside in the city’s most luxurious hotel, a semi-dilapidated high-rise located in what Jack’s wife Annie (Lake Bell) helpfully notes is technically “the fourth world.”
This isn’t an Eat Pray Love-type movie that treats foreign soil as a place to find inner harmony. It’s more Shoot Shout Run, where white men reestablish their agency and authority against a backdrop of xenophobic chaos.
Jack and his family, including his two young daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare), are barely in town for a day when the country’s presumably oppressive government is toppled by a coup. Statues of its tyrannical leader collapse as hordes of locals, rendered literally faceless with their bandanas, storm through the streets killing officials and battling with overmatched riot police. And they’re specifically targeting white people.
During the next twenty-four or so hours, Jack must lead his collection of stereotypically terrified women through Hotel Hell, into the seething streets, and toward the safe haven of the Vietnam border.
No Escape is essentially Argo meets The Mosquito Coast. As in the latter, a well-meaning father leads his family into danger when he overestimates his ability to persevere in a foreign land. And much as in Argo, here our heroes are essentially innocents caught in an uprising in which they have no stake.
An essential difference is that Argo’s uprising is based in historical fact, in a real country whose politics exist within a broader context. The biggest of the many mistakes screenwriting brothers John Erick and Drew Dowdle make in No Escape is to set their story in a fictitious land. Not specifically naming the country seems a diplomatic move, but it has the practical effect of rendering all the non-white characters as generic Asians, a kind of racially conglomerated Yellow Menace. (Also baffling: Placing the country on the border of Vietnam, which limits the options to Laos and Cambodia, as China makes no sense.)
None of the revolutionaries are given speaking parts beyond what they shout down the barrels of guns pointed at doe-eyed little girls. Director John Dowdle makes the mildest of efforts in the late moments of the film to give their side of the story— another white dude explains that the citizens are revolting against the exploitative capitalist practices of Jack’s own not-so-humble water company. But after an hour and fifteen minutes of watching Owen Wilson lead his family away from shrieking gunmen, and witnessing Lake Bell’s gratuitous near-rape, the audience isn’t so inclined to take a three-sentence Wikipedia summary of the revolutionaries’ grievances on balance. And this is before we see a crew of antigovernment forces slavering over helpless Jack, pointing guns at his toddler’s head and trying to force one of his own daughters to shoot him, purely for the sadistic thrill.
The only glimmer of fun comes via Pierce Brosnan, who seems to have stepped out of a different, more endearingly absurd version of the same movie. He’s a savvy, cantankerous government operative who makes Jack’s acquaintance early on only to burst back into the fray when Jack— and the movie as a whole— needs a little help. Brosnan is a hoot in a movie sorely lacking in hoots, a kind of James Bond with a more overt substance-abuse problem and a proclivity for underaged prostitutes. It’s ridiculous, but his boisterous skuzziness is refreshingly honest in a movie otherwise so coy about its appeals to its audience’s basest impulses.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.