Not far into John Erick Dowdle’s international thriller “No Escape,” American businessman Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) is trapped on the roof of his hotel along with his family and dozens of other refugees from a popular revolution that has rebels combing the hotel killing anyone they can find. A helicopter is heard, and Jack and the others heave sighs of relief, believing it must be a rescue coming from…somewhere. Perhaps the central government that they believe might actually still be in power somewhere. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Turns out it’s just more of the rebels, and they take to gunning down everyone on the roof from the helicopter. When that fizzles, a horde of the rebels break through the door onto the roof and begin systematically murdering everyone in sight. Jack shows some initiative and realizes that if they can get to the roof of the building next door, they may stand a chance. His wife Annie (Lake Bell) jumps first, and then Jack must toss his two daughters, Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare), across a frightening chasm between buildings. In this they are assisted by an anonymous stranger, an Asian man who helps the family survive. After Jack leaps to safety the anonymous Asian tries to make the jump himself, but is gunned down by the rebels instead. Jack and his family race off without a backward glance. Not another thought is spared for the dead Asian man.
We are meant to feel relief—the Americans have escaped with their lives. The only thought the audience is meant to have—and I suppose the only thought the director and the writers (Dowdle and his bother Drew) seem to want us to have—is relief, and oh boy, did you see how that other guy got blasted? Good thing it wasn’t one of us. And that’s why the rooftop scene is in fact a microcosm of the entire movie. Nobody matters but us—or our surrogates, the American Dwyer family.
Don’t get me wrong, though, the rooftop scene is harrowing, intense, and powerful. It is also the last worthwhile part of the movie. From this point, the family simply bounces from one perilous scene to another. There really isn’t a plot in this movie, just a series of more and more improbable escapes, until the movie has gotten long enough, and then the improbable escapes come to an end.
What passes for a plot is a particular situation: Jack is an American engineer whose own business has failed and who is now employed by a new company. His new employer has sent him to a dirty city somewhere in Southeast Asia. We never know quite where, and I suppose it doesn’t matter, since as far as the script goes, Asians are interchangeable and disposable. Just before Jack arrives with his family, a revolution has begun, the main purpose of which seems to be to slaughter all Westerners and anyone who does business with them. Some three quarters of the way through the film, Pierce Brosnan, playing a British (or Australian?) undercover agent, explains that the rebels are angry that the previous government made a deal with Jack’s company that will allow them to monopolize the water treatment facilities in the country—and will maximize profits on this goodwill gesture, on the backs of the common people.
Nothing else happens with this information. It is a one-time bit of exposition that gives the rebels a motive, and explains why they are so tenacious in coming after Jack. It doesn’t permeate the film or lead to any insights among the audience or among the characters—Jack’s only response is, “I thought we were the good guys.” How do we read that? It never comes up again. It’s just background for the interminable escapes that follow.
Owen Wilson deserves little of the blame for this mess. He plays against type in a serious role as a “regular” guy with a wife and kids, whom circumstances turn into something of an action hero. The same might be said for Lake Bell, and together they make a sympathetic couple. We have to root for the family, because they do have a chemistry.
But chemistry isn’t enough to save this film. It needs a plot. It needs a theme. It needs something more than a series of episodes in which we are meant to say “Oh no! How are they going to get out of this one?” It needs a more detailed setting—Where are we? It seems like it ought to be Thailand. Or Burma. But apparently, we learn at the end, it is a country bordering on Vietnam—and so must be Cambodia or Laos? It’s a curious path of rescue for western capitalists. One wonders if there may be some kind of deliberate irony there. But given the simple-minded approach taken in the rest of the film, it may be simply that Vietnam was the only Southeast Asian country the writers knew the name of.
I’m giving this one two Jacqueline Susanns, but only because of the first half hour, and because of the admirable acting done by Wilson and Bell, who must know they are in an absurd film, but give it their all anyway.