The first scene of No Escape shows viewers a lavish palace, full of ostentatious décor and radiating a sense of importance. As soon as a gunshot is heard offscreen, however, it becomes clear that we — along with the protagonists, the Dwyer family — are actually being thrown into a war zone. Jack (Owen Wilson), the father of the aforementioned Dwyer clan, has accepted an overseas job (located in a South Asian country that’s never explicitly named) with a company that builds water valves; after the violent opening, the movie flashes back to 17 hours earlier, as he, his wife Annie (Lake Bell), and their two daughters move to their new home. The Dwyers have just begun to deal with their culture shock and the long-term implications of this career choice when Jack finds himself in the middle of a street clash between armed guards and angry civilians. The prime minister was assassinated the night before, and it seems that he’s not the only person whom the crowd wants dead. Since a photo of Jack is plastered in the lobby of his hotel, which the marauders swiftly raid, overtake, and destroy, he unwittingly becomes a symbol of the capitalist greed bankrupting third-world nations, and he and his family are hunted as they make a mad dash to the U.S. embassy in order to flee the country.
They are aided in their journey by a British tourist named Hammond (played with infectious zeal by Pierce Brosnan), who serves as the Dwyers’ guardian angel; he also provides the movie’s comic relief, along with his trusted friend “Kenny Rogers” (Sahajak Boonthanakit in an enjoyable, too-brief turn), so named because of his deep love for the country singer. Indeed, there’s even a scene in which the Dwyers exit the airport and a giddy Hammond guides them to the Rogers-themed vehicle driven by “Kenny,” who holds up a black-and-white picture of the musician to demonstrate the “uncanny resemblance.” The first 30 minutes of the film are solid enough: The beginning establishes the characters, and contains genuinely visceral action and a decisive, heart-pounding moment that sets the central plot in motion. Wilson is charismatic and likable enough to earn the audience’s sympathy, and the story line, about a family caught up in foreign turmoil, is ripe with potential.
Oddly, brothers and co-screenwriters Drew and John Erick Dowdle — the latter of whom also directed — never specify the country where the action takes place (the movie itself was shot primarily in Thailand). This was ostensibly done to avoid controversy abroad, but the Dowdles use this artistic freedom to paint most of the fictional nation’s populace as one-dimensional, bloodthirsty savages, while the existence of locals who are merely concerned parents like Jack is relegated to a clumsy, throwaway monologue by Hammond. Only a handful of natives (those who provide the Dwyers with shelter or help them escape) are imbued with any form of humanity, and one of them will only offer aid in exchange for Jack’s accessories and clothes. Some of the frantic camerawork, meant to create a sense of disorienting panic, only serves to disturb the natural flow of the movie, as do a number of painfully melodramatic slow-motion interludes. The Dwyer daughters’ only contribution to the story is to make viewers worried about the family, as they keep acting in ways that compromise their own safety.
Although he is saddled with a nearly guffaw-inducing speech about the impact ruthless capitalists have on poorer countries (namely, selling them dreams they can’t afford and then bankrupting their governments), Brosnan is utterly charming and often funny as a redeemable bad boy who is also an undercover British operative. His karaoke performance in the hotel bar, which neatly segues into a heartfelt conversation with Jack, is one of the film’s best moments. Annie is a one-note buzzkill throughout the first half of the movie, but Bell’s performance is assured and as nuanced as the script allows her to be, and the character is eventually given the chance to step up and take charge in the home stretch.
Wilson proves game enough to command the screen whenever he’s called to do so, but his character’s lack of discernable personal attributes, outside of his roles as a husband and father, make Jack an utter enigma. From the Dwyers’ dash to the embassy through a seemingly brainwashed mob (during which Jack tries to go incognito by wearing a turban, even though his blond curls are still visible) to a laughable escape by boat that provides no realistic drama or resolution whatsoever, this thriller is a hodgepodge of missteps wrapped up in a story full of unrealized potential. Viewers eager for an exciting cinematic experience that has something to say might want to look elsewhere this fall season.