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Escape from Reality

The Weinstein Company
 103 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: John Erick Dowdle 
Starring: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan
No Escape

The vast majority of movies are fictional, but, most of the time, audiences demand some level of credibility in their films. And the general rule of thumb is that the more “real” a film looks, the more believable we expect its story to be. So, we can accept people menaced by zombies or vampires or nearly indestructible fiends wearing hockey masks, but if the danger comes in the form of impoverished third world natives brandishing all manner of crude weaponry, the audience expects that mob to behave in a believable manner.


This lack of credibility is the major problem that continually dogs No Escape, a generally well made action film with a surprisingly effective albeit seemingly miscast star in Owen Wilson. In No Escape, Wilson plays Jack Dwyer, a mid-level executive at a major utility company. Dwyer is an engineer whose own business failed, but has been given a second chance in an unnamed Southeast Asian country a lot like Thailand. So, he takes wife Annie (Lake Bell) and his two daughters overseas where they wait to meet with Jack’s new local contacts.


While waiting, Jack decides to go find an English language newspaper, and his sojourn to a nearby street bazaar shopping district is rudely interrupted when he finds himself squarely in the middle of a riot involving dozens of police in riot gear confronting a street mob with knives and rocks. The riot turns bloody with casualties on both sides, and Jack flees, heading back to the hotel to be with his family.


Once there, he finds the street mob has quickly become much better organized, and they are going from building to building executing random Westerners. The dozens of police from the previous scene are nowhere to be found (and, indeed, vanish for the remainder of the movie). The mob that in the previous scene was throwing rocks now has a tank and a helicopter at its disposal. The latter comes in quite handy (for the mob, who by now, we learn are an organized rebellion) when Jack and his family try to seek shelter on the hotel’s roof.


By the time the rebels’ helicopter appeared, which, if memory serves me, is before the rebel tank appeared, my mind had stopped thinking about Jack and his family’s plight and wondering just what type of Twilight Zone horror Jack was involved in. Apparently, in a matter of hours, a major civil war breaks out without any notice in a reasonably Westernized country. Hundreds of Westerners are slaughtered, the United States Embassy is overrun, and heavily armed mobs are roaming the streets, but there is no response whatsoever from either the country’s own army and police forces or the U.S. (or any other country’s) government.


That last statement is not quite true. There is a response in the form of Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), a hard drinking adventurer type with a bizarre accent who Jack meets, first on the plane and later in the hotel bar. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that there’s more to Hammond than meets the eye. In fact, as Jack learns when Hammond shows up to extricate him and Annie from a particularly bad predicament, the man is a shadowy operative who was partly to blame for the events that led to the civil war in the first place (here’s a hint: it has to do with lots of money and the company Jack works for).


Despite the deus ex machina reappearance of Brosnan, No Escape manages to be a fairly engrossing survival movie most of the time. I was actually able to accept Owen Wilson as an engineer who invented a terrific new type of valve and wound up getting bought out by a multinational corporation. And he and Bell certainly have that “everyman/everywoman” vibe to them.


With one exception (the scene shown in trailers featuring Wilson throwing his daughters to safety in an adjacent building), almost all the stunt work appears credible. The fight scenes have a ferocious clumsiness to them, the way two untrained, unskilled men would actually engage in a life-or-death struggle. And, although there is a bit of camera placement trickery in the scene in which Wilson tosses his daughters to the next building, there’s no CGI gimmickry. The gunfire and explosions are appropriately scaled, and the action scenes seem quite real.


Of course, what does not seem real is the entire setting. Almost no one in the film other that Jack’s family and Hammond speaks English, and almost everyone in the crowds seems to be a nearly rabid fanatic. In fact, the movie bears a striking resemblance to the current wave of zombie films, with the rebels just as bloodthirsty, relentless, and completely lacking in definable personalities.


No Escape is the first non-horror film from director John Erick Dowdle (who also co-wrote the script with his brother), whose last film was the found footage debacle As Above So Below. Horror films pretty much have no credibility concerns, since it’s pretty hard to argue that a ghost or demon wouldn’t behave in a certain manner. Dowdle’s blunt touch extends to the film’s dialogue as well, which winds up being saccharine corny on more that one occasion, with Bell and Wilson expressing their love for each other while under fire.


However, Dowdle’s rather blunt touch doesn’t work in No Escape. The crowds didn’t seem like real people as much as constructs, real life zombies who were just as alien and dangerous only still breathing and speaking an incomprehensible language. Ironically, one of the most effective and suspenseful scenes in the movie involves Jack and his family trying to disguise themselves and get through a crowd without being recognized, a scene that harkened back to the first season of The Walking Dead.


No Escape is passable escapist entertainment as long as audiences don’t dwell on the complete incredibility of the plot or dialogue, which sounds more at home in a romance novel than in real life. The last hour of the film is virtually non-stop, well staged action and suspense, with the added bonus being that the action scenes themselves (with that one exception) are actually believable. Jack and Annie don’t pull off any stutnts that a reasonably fit 40ish couple should be able to do if they keep their wits about them. It’s too bad that director Dowdle couldn’t similarly keep his wits about him when he was putting the script of No Escape together. 

Read other reviews of No Escape:


No Escape (2015) on IMDb