You’re unlikely to see an action-thriller this summer that is as intense as No Escape, a chilling examination of what happens to strangers in a strange land when the land turns into a hell-scape.
The movie opens in an unnamed Southeast Asian nation, the leader of which is meeting with a Western businessman. We see the scene from the point of view of the ruler’s bodyguard—he tastes the tea his master is served, presumably checking for poison, and walks the businessman to his car after the meeting ends. But that turns out to be a fatal mistake: When the sovereign is left alone, rebels strike. Locked out of the house, the bodyguard sprints to another entrance as we hear sounds of gunfire; by the time he arrives on the scene, the leader is dead.
A coup is on. And into this maelstrom flies the Dwyer family, whose arrival into the country a few hours earlier we now flash back to. Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) is an engineer who has taken a gig with a multinational corporation to work on a water plant in the Asian nation. He and his wife Annie (Lake Bell) are resettling with their two young daughters; on the flight over, they briefly interact with Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), a Brit with a wry sense of humor and a few too many scars to be a simple sex tourist, as he initially claims.
Drew and John Erick Dowdle, brothers and cowriters, do a good job of creating a believable family unit out of the Dwyers. The script is tight, informing us in short order that Jack isn’t terribly thrilled with his new gig, that the kids might be having trouble adjusting to the move, and that Annie is struggling to hold it together.
One moment in particular feels almost uncomfortably real. Annie is on the floor of the bathroom in their hotel, crying, and Jack struggles to explain the situation. She cuts him short, saying simply, "I can’t comfort you right now," and Jack (played perfectly with the natural awkwardness Wilson brings to every role) shuffles back to bed.
Things only get worse for the Dwyers. Jack is caught in the coup’s initial wave of violence: While trying to track down an English-language newspaper, he’s literally stuck in the middle of the action, riot cops on one side and rock-throwing revolutionaries on the other. Jack realizes the stakes when the mob gets the upper hand and executes an American businessman in the street. He and his family need to get out as soon as they can.
The Dwyers must stay ten steps ahead of the brutal mob. Aiding in their quest is Brosnan’s Hammond, who serves as a kind of walking, talking deus ex machina, magically showing up whenever the family needs to be rescued, and explaining to Jack just why the people have revolted. It’s all because of the evil corporations and globalization, man. Hammond sagely says that those guys out there—the ones who put a bullet in a man’s head, who lined up enemies of the people in the street in order to be run over by a truck, who have been hacking tourists apart with machetes, who attempted to rape Annie in front of Jack and their two children—they’re just like Jack, fathers trying to make a better life for their kids.
It’s an amusingly oblivious bit of moral equivalence that you can’t help but feel was tacked on in order to deflect accusations of racism over the film’s setting and antagonists. Mission not accomplished, by the way; I haven’t seen this many un-ironic warnings about art that promulgates the dread "Orientalism" since college, and publications that should know better are making not-at-all-hyperbolic comparisons to Birth of a Nation.
Fortunately, the Adbusters-caliber grasp of international economics doesn’t intrude too much into the action. Director John Erick Dowdle has crafted a claustrophobically tense thriller. There’s a real sense of doom on all sides, an idea that safety is impossible. No Escape is not for the weak of will—but it’s perfect for anyone interested in taking a terrifying journey into the heart of human darkness.