Directed by John Erick Dowdle. Produced by Drew Dowdle, Michel Litvak and David Lancaster. Written by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle. Release date: August 26, 2015.
Likely to be more remembered for its racism than any of the thrills it manages to generate, the amount one can like No Escape essentially comes down to how much one can ignore anything other than its technical accomplishments. If it was possible to focus solely on how well it generates tension, No Escape might wind up being a shining example, one that we hold up among the greats as a “how to” manual of how to make this type of movie. But because most of us are thinking human beings, it’s hard to separate the technical proficiency from its politics, which are just a little bit disgusting.
The story begins like many fish-out-of-water plots do. A family moves from their cozy American home to an unnamed country in Asia, and have to deal with all of the pesky problems that come with doing so, like finding a taxi, power outages, people who don’t speak their language, and so on. The father, Jack (Owen Wilson), tries to find an English newspaper, but can only find one several days old. Upon walking back to his hotel, he finds himself caught in the middle of a coup. The Asian rebels are murdering everyone they see – but in particular Americans. So, Jack and co. need to continually try to run away from the villains – who essentially amount to every Asian in the film, save for maybe two – constantly finding themselves in peril and having to figure out another way to get out of danger.
Basically, it’s a zombie movie, except that zombies have been replaced with Asians who have had enough. Enough of what, exactly? The film informs us at one point that they’re revolting because of the way that American companies have managed to more or less own several of their important businesses through underhanded tactics. This isn’t a focus, though, and if it was meant to give the villains sympathy – or establish intentional political commentary – it fails. Instead, we’re forced to cheer for our white American protagonists, because that’s the only way that the filmmakers think audiences will be able to care about what’s happening. Never mind that the villains barely speak in more than grunts, and have precisely no characterization – acting in a mob mentality that portrays them as savages.
It’s the same type of problem that The Impossible had a couple of years back, except No Escape is getting a wide release, while The Impossible wound up being largely forgotten about in the one or two art house theaters your city has – if you got it at all. Horrific events that impact – or end – hundreds to thousands of lives are filtered to the audience with white protagonists, missing a great opportunity to have the film be about the impact to the locals. Instead, we have to focus on the plight of American tourists, who most definitely have it harder than those who are part of the coup. I don’t want to belabor this point, but it’s really difficult to ignore.
No Escape is technically proficient and does have some thrills within it, but it’s also really gross…
If you can get past all of this, though, you’re in for quite a suspenseful ride. This is just an ordinary family, and they’ve been put in a pretty extreme situation. They don’t have the skills of an action hero; they can basically only flee, continuing to move until they’re caught again. And because they’re a family, that means there are children. A filmmaking rule is that if you have children, and you put those children in danger, the audience will get much more concerned than if all you have are adults. Children are precious, after all. So when the children are, for example, being thrown rooftop to rooftop, it’s a little bit frightening. No Escape contains both nail-biting and white-knuckle filmmaking. The film has been directed by John Erick Dowdle, a horror movie director who previously gave us Quarantine and As Above, So Below, so you know he’s able to deliver the thrills. The situations help, but so does the cinematography, which gives us an abnormally large amount of close-ups and focuses on the faces of those in peril.
That’s where our acting comes in. Owen Wilson and his on-screen wife Lake Bell may not seem like the right actors for these types of roles, probably because they’re not, but their everyperson personas wind up helping us sympathize with their situation. They can’t just go into Action Mode and save everyone; they’re scared for themselves and for their children, and they’re not ever sure exactly what to do. That is, until it comes to murdering Asians, which they do with glee and without any psychological trauma – despite the fact that they’re “normal people.” Oops! We’re back to the film’s racism again. That keeps popping up for some reason. Sorry!
The whole “normal people” thing kind of goes out the window when it comes to the character played by Pierce Brosnan, who is an actor still trying to re-live his James Bond days. Brosnan fulfills two roles in No Escape. (1) Act as a deus ex machina whenever the screenwriters write their characters into an inescapable situation. (2) Provide exposition. That’s it. Once his character has fulfilled these tasks, he disappears until he’s needed again. He has pinpoint accuracy with a gun, can be shot and continue on, and knows everything about what’s going on. He solves all problems.
So, here’s what it comes down to: Do you want to see a movie that treats the Asian citizens of a country it can’t be bothered to name like savage zombies whose lives matter significantly less than bland white tourists who are in part responsible for the problems that the locals face, just as long as there are some thrills along the way? Because all of this is in the film, it’s impossible – at least for me – to separate the two. There’s a reason we normally use actual zombies for this type of movie; it’s to ensure that we don’t have to force an entire culture to act like mindless barbarians. But that’s what No Escape does. No Escape is technically proficient and does have some thrills within it, but it’s also really gross, especially when it comes to the treatment of … whichever Asian group it’s supposed to be representing.
Bottom Line: No Escape is a film without a touch of tact, but also more than a few thrills.
Recommendation: If you’re someone who can ignore blatant racism in a film, No Escape will be a fun ride.[rating=2]
If you want more of Matthew “Marter” Parkinson, you can follow him on the Twitter @Martertweet and check out his weekly movie podcast.