Originally titled The Coup, in the new thriller No Escape from director/writer John Erick Dowdle, the nice Dwyer family from Austin has no clue what’s about to erupt right on their hotel doorstep. They’ve just flown from Texas to a capital city somewhere in Southeast Asia – the country is never officially named – and the first indication that something might be wrong is when dad (Owen Wilson, playing it uncharacteristically straight) checks his cell.
“The phone is supposed to work internationally,” he says, “But it doesn’t.” It’s not the most alarming of things, but still, it’s an inconvenience. The second indication is in their hotel room. No cable or TV signals. Plus, the hotel phones aren’t working. When dad checks with the front desk he’s told that the whole city appears to be temporarily down. So while mom (the talented and often funny Lake Bell, also playing it straight) and the two young daughters continue unpacking, dad takes a stroll outside to find a newspaper. That’s when all hell breaks.
Jack Dwyer has taken a job with an American engineering company that has just sealed a hugely lucrative deal with the foreign country’s Prime Minister. Jack’s there to help work on the country’s water system. He thinks he’s there to improve things. What he doesn’t know is that moments after that financial deal was sealed, for reasons we’ll later discover, the PM was killed and the protesting rebels are about to take control.
Jack is, of course, oblivious to all of this. It’s only moments after buying a three day-old copy of USA Today when he notices something odd. All the shops and stores are suddenly shutting down. Then at one end of the street he sees an army of police officers with riot shields and protective head gear marching as one towards him. At the other end of the street is a motley crew of machete wielding, molotov-cocktail holding locals marching towards the police… and Jack is right there in the middle.
What follows is a thrilling and often shocking set of well orchestrated action pieces as Jack runs through alleys and back streets, trying to make it to the safety of the hotel and to his family, witnessing the most appalling and grisliest of murders of both police and innocents along the way. It’s only when Jack witnesses the murder of an American tourist outside of the hotel – executed by the rebels because he’s an American – that Jack realizes to his horror there’s no safety anywhere. He and his family have flown into a nightmare.
The initial strength to No Escape is that it looks like it could be based on a true story; a reenactment of a foreign coup as experienced by an innocent white western family who had the misfortune of being overseas at the wrong time. There’s an accomplished realism to those early scenes, a series of intense adrenaline-fueled scenarios that are both harrowing and sweat-inducing scary. When a mixture of French, Australian, and Americans huddle together on what they hope is the safety of the hotel roof, a helicopter hovers over them suggesting rescue. Instead, a rebel gunman opens fire and machine-gun sprays the tourists. That, coupled with the gruesome hackings and the execution of countless local innocent bystanders, is everything we’ve ever heard or read about from the safety of our homes thousands of miles away but have never experienced.
Then, somewhere around the halfway mark, the reality spell is broken. There’s a moment when the fleeing family, having survived machete attacks and various other brutally vicious attempts on their lives, are surrounded. Realistically, it would be over for the family. The only way to survive the scene is if this was a work of fiction and some well-trained, gun wielding secret agent burst in and shot everyone. Jason Statham or Dwayne Johnson to the rescue. And then it happens, only it’s Pierce Brosnan. He’s a covert government agent with skills to kill – not to mention a suspicious sounding cockney accent – who bursts in, shoots each rebel with a well placed, single shot and rescues the family. The moment may be a crowd-pleaser but it also punctures the illusion of seeing something that appears potentially real and turns it into a thriller that is suddenly, and obviously, fiction. Plus, there’s something else.
Once Brosnan’s grizzled cockney character explains to Jack why the rebels are doing what they’re doing, a different tone is set, but it doesn’t stick when it should. With the support of both American and British governments, Jack’s company is there not so much to improve the water but to loan the impoverished third-world country the money to pay for the new infrastructure. Once the country defaults on the loan the company will own the place and call the shots. Think back to the Shah and how he and his wife paid the ultimate price for personal luxury while allowing western interests to takeover at the expense of the locals. Same thing here.
When a corporate interest enslaves a foreign economy for present and future gain and the locals – the ones who’ll pay the price – know what’s going on, what does anyone think will happen? The problem with the generically titled No Escape – what was wrong with The Coup? – is that this important nugget comes too late. Audiences, already clutching their theatre armrests or biting their nails, will be too immersed in the thrills and spills of big screen, last second escapes to even consider the reality that it’s our own passive acceptance of aggressive western corporate tactics that really caused the problem. They won’t care. All anyone will be thinking about is how the brave family gets out of there. The unfair exploitation of a foreign culture, its politics and our own unwanted overseas involvement won’t even cross their minds.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 101 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)