Yes, this is the movie where Owen Wilson chucks a little girl off a roof. Both the trailer and the poster for “No Escape” center on that surreal moment, when a family man takes an insane gamble to save his kids. What scenario could demand such a risk? It’s an intriguing tease. Unfortunately, this Wilson vehicle doesn’t pay off on its promise at all, being woefully miscast, tortuously one-note, and frustratingly xenophobic.
John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, who brought us the underwhelming 2014 horror-adventure “As Above So Below,” are back, leaving behind the catacombs of Paris for Asia. Where in Asia, precisely? Um, somewhere near Vietnam.
“No Escape” never bothers to make its location clear, setting up an Ugly American tone that infects the rest of the narrative and makes its characters grossly naïve. The average American may not be able to identify the differences among Southeast Asian nations, but if you’re an engineer who’s decided to uproot your family to one, you’d probably want to know a bit about its language, customs and political landscape. Maybe even its name. Yet Jack Dwyer (Wilson) is ignorant of all the above, blindly and bullheadedly leading his family through a labyrinth of revolt and bloodshed.
Worse still, Wilson is wildly miscast. For years his brand has been getting flustered at the drop of a hat. So when a morning stroll throws him into the midst of a melee between rebels and whatever country’s military, the stakes don’t hit home the same way they would if a more rugged star were in the role. When Bruce Willis or Liam Neeson looks scared, you know things are bad. Wilson, on the other hand, may simply have said the wrong thing at a dinner party or spilled a soda on his kid’s homework assignment. He has nowhere to go dramatically. And the Dowdles’ script doesn’t help, repeating the same cycle, ad nauseum: Jack sees something terrible; he tells wife that they have to flee with their kids; she cries; he does action stuff; Asian people die; the family runs away. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Lake Bell, who’ been a charm bomb in movies like “In a World” and “Man Up,” isn’t given a character to play here as much as a mouthpiece for the film’s stakes. Jack doggedly insists they have to keep “10 steps ahead” of the violent mob that wants all foreigners dead. His wife Annie then shrieks, “No one knows where we are! No one will come save us!” It’s not until the third act that Annie gets to do anything besides nag or follow her husband. And in one particularly grim moment, she is threatened with rape so that her husband will be forced to give up his hard-won upper hand.
Recalling “The Gift,” Annie and their daughters only matter as things that belong to Jack, as evidenced by the way the script refuses to develop any of the female characters beyond the most cursory sketches. The daughters are indistinguishable, being little more than crying props to be lugged about. If the Dowdles script had concentrated on crafting personalities for this family of four, “No Escape” might have been chilling. But as it is, the Dwyers are too amorphous to invest in. Which brings me back to that child-chucking scene.
Early on in the second act, these vague villains are closing in on the hotel rooftop where the Dwyers are huddled, so Jack decides his family must leap to the next building. He pushes Annie to jump first, and then hurls their kids after. It should be a moment of nail-biting intensity. But director John Erick Dowdle not only has no skill for character development, but also fails in pacing and tension building. Slow motion is thrown in to emphasize dramatic moments, but steals their momentum and actually drew laughs from the audience when a screaming 7-year-old — all slo-mo flapping limbs and freaked-out face — awkwardly sails the divide between two buildings.
“No Escape” is a bad movie. And not the kind that’s so bad it’s fun. Its world and characters are lazily established, leaving both undefined and uninteresting. Crassly, this nation’s brutal upheaval is presented as tragic because of the American family caught in its crosshairs. Forget the innocent locals who also have kids — they don’t even get subtitles to communicate their thoughts or fears. Instead, the Dowdles reduce this culture to a blur of “other,” making “No Escape” an American-abroad nightmare like “The Impossible” and “Hostel.”
The only entertaining aspect of this flubbed thriller is Pierce Brosnan. Striped with scars, and made skeezy with greasy hair and a mischievous grin, he revels in his scene-stealing role as a trouble-loving tourist who turns out to be part of the “British CIA,” as Jack idiotically puts it. Fifteen years Wilson’s senior, Brosnan still possesses the kind of braggadocio that makes for a mesmerizing action hero. When he sweeps back into the narrative guns blazing, I was hopeful the film wouldn’t be a total bore. But his scenes come and go too quickly. And not long after a galling speech in which he blatantly and inexplicably disregards previous plot points to excuse any American culpability in this conflict, Brosnan bows out in a blaze of glory. Then we’re stuck once more with the dour and dull Dwyers.
My favorite thing about this movie was just that it ended. It wasted the charisma of Lake Bell, it didn’t know what to do with Owen Wilson, and made no effort to flesh out three of its four main characters. Dowdle’s blasé attitude about the film’s setting and the politics implied in its plot is disappointing, but not even as much as how thoroughly tedious this wannabe action film is. Brosnan, who is almost a cigar-chomping cartoon character, feels like he’s from another movie entirely, but at least one that might have been worth watching. As it stands, “No Escape” is a journey you’re better off skipping.
“No Escape” opens today.
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