Political Issues Weigh Down Action Film

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

Content Warning: This review discusses violent and potentially offensive themes that may be disturbing to some readers.

In order to properly instill fear in the audience, horror and action filmmakers exploit deep sources of paranoia and thrust them onto the screen. This leverage of the human psyche often manifests itself as a masked man with a knife or a bloodthirsty beast; the former plays on our knowledge of the potential cruelty of other humans and the latter on our wariness of the unknown. No Escape weighs both of these options and settles for a not-so-happy medium. This decision gives rise to one of the greatest narrative miscalculations in recent memory.

Brothers John and Drew Dowdle, who wrote and directed this picture, became known over the last five years for the tepidly-received scare flicks Quarantine and As Above, So Below. As it turns out, the brothers’ inaugural foray into the action-thriller genre is a confusing meld of competent filmmaking, good performances and appalling narrative design.

From the opening scene, the tone is clear. The prime minister of an unspecified Southeast Asian nation is dead and rebels have taken over a nameless city. Before viewers have time to react, we find ourselves time-hopping back 17 hours earlier to a plane with pensive Jack (Owen Wilson at the top of his game), good-natured Annie (Lake Bell) and their two extremely annoying daughters. They’re on their way to Southeast Asia so that Jack, an American engineer, can help build a waterway. He seems to be the only one certain about the move, and this dynamic becomes clearer once the family hits the streets of the unnamed city.

The city’s entire culture is immediately painted as the other: a place of confusion and anonymity rather than an actual living, breathing human landscape. The foreignness of it all is exaggerated in as many ways as possible; though the cinematography is excellent, the entire story is told from the perspective of our four heroes.

That’s not to say that the movie is incapable of humanizing its characters. In one early scene, Jack finds Annie on the bathroom floor late at night, curled up in a ball and crying. He tries to explain to her his reasons for moving, but she cuts him off in a line more poignant and visceral than any of the film’s violence: “I’m sorry, Jack. I can’t comfort you right now.” Perhaps if this emotional rawness had persisted for the duration of the feature, the rest would have been redeemable. However, as Jack wanders the streets the next morning, the people around him are given no such humanity. They stare at him coldly, as if they are the ones doing the othering rather than the filmmakers. Suddenly, the streets are filled with rioters, and the film’s premise takes the screen by storm. Jarringly out-of-place slow motion shots pepper a fight between police and rebels in a show of pure brutality.

Throughout the film, this demonization of the invading force remains the Dowdle brothers’ chief means of terrorizing the audience. The rebels are never given subtitles, so the film plays like Independence Day for the politically oblivious.

This brazen xenophobia makes for an often boring, repetitive struggle at the core of the film. Without a face or even a name to assign to the seemingly endless supply of rebels thrown at the main characters through the course of the narrative, it becomes difficult to justify why any of this is happening in the first place. When the rebels are finally given a motive three quarters of the way through the movie by a battlehardened man called Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), the justification is painfully half-baked and does little to humanize a seemingly inhuman enemy.

Some of the action scenes are legitimately pulse-pounding, and although those in danger are, as a result of the premise, always Americans, it’s hard not to get swept up in the tension of it all. The acting lends more credibility to these moments of panic; Owen Wilson pulls off a very convincing father driven to the end of his rope and Lake Bell really should be acting in better movies. However, the film’s formula — hide from the bad guys, wait for them to pass and then keep running — gets tired around the midway point, and it’s easy to stop caring about the characters when the script replaces moments of tenderness with more scenes meant to shock viewers with the rebels’ brutality. This too grows stale, and eventually the writing plunges into groan-worthy melodrama comprised mostly of variations on the exchange, “We’re not going to make it!” “Yes, we are!”

Ultimately, No Escape, while competently put together, mishandles its touchy material, using civil conflict as a way to exploit America’s fear of the other. Despite its moments of tension and convincing performances, the Dowdles were unable to raise the movie above its problematic premise, and the narrative buckles under the weight of their mistake.

2 out of 4 squirrels