No Escape (2015) [dir. John Erick Dowdle]

Posted: August 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

“No Escape”, a film which should have kept its original name of “The Coup” instead of taking a name used by a number of films prior, is a liberal film working within a conservative genre.  The genre isn’t quite that tidily defined, but it’s a 90s-feeling action film that tries to keep the violence and action within realistic limits.  Actions films to one extent or another tend to be conservative, from the pro-gun and pro-vigilantism 80s action films to the downright fascist 70s films like “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish”.  It’s obvious that the makers of “No Escape” are somewhat leftist, but if you’re going to make a film about an American family who get caught up in an anti-Western imperialism coup in Asia, there’s going to be some xenophobia and racism going on.  The question becomes, are those negative traits even avoidable when making a film with this premise.

The premise is intriguing, and quite frankly preys on one of my own fears.  One of the big things I’d like to do with my life is travel more, especially internationally.  Unfortunately, because America idiotically decides not to teach foreign languages to kids until high school when all research shows they’re more likely to pick them up the earlier you start teaching them, I and many Americans can’t speak a second language.  That’s okay when traveling to many European countries, because English is commonly spoken in them.  When you start getting into Slavic and Asian countries, however, you’re dealing with both a population that doesn’t speak English, and peoples who use a different alphabet.  I mainly want to visit Moscow, but in addition to not speaking Russian, they also use Cyrillic, which I cannot read.  There’s a little bit of fear when going to a place where you don’t know the language and can’t read basic signs.  Now, take that basic anxiety, and imagine you’re in this foreign land when a violent civil war breaks out.  That is a frightening thing to think about, and makes for a great set-up for a film.

Since I really like this set-up, I’m hesitant to chastise the film for being xenophobic because, well, I don’t think any film made with that concept cannot be xenophobic, and I’m not willing to say a mere IDEA should not be filmed because of that.  The question remains as to whether every citizen of the foreign country is portrayed as an evil savage (as Chris Kyle seemed to think of all Iraqis in “American Sniper”, a film with inexcusable xenophobia among its other sins) or if the film attempts to balance the portrayal.  The answer is that, well, yes, it does.  “No Escape” does give us many, many, many shots of interchangeable Asians shooting, blowing up, hacking, and smashing people. This is a very violent film.  However, the film also goes to great pains to show other Asians who attempt to stand up to rebels, to block the rebels from entering buildings, who try to help Americans not get killed, and who provide hiding places for the Americans.  It’s admittedly hard to differentiate between the good citizens and the evil rebels of this unnamed country, but they are not ALL portrayed as evil.  But, due to the parameters of the set-up, most are.

Perhaps more plot details are needed here.  The film involves Jack (Owen Wilson), his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two kids.  The kids in the film are annoying and act idiotically, even for children.  If you are maybe 9 or 5 years old and you’ve seen dozens of people brutally murdered before your very eyes, you would not at all act the way the children in this film act.  I get that the film needs to make its protagonist a family man, but it becomes increasingly far-fetched that two adults lugging around two children can successfully make their way through city streets undetected by rebels for as long as they do.  The film gave us two children when one would have sufficed for the needs of the plot, but whatever.  This family is moving to the unnamed Asian country because Jack’s previous company went belly-up, and now he’s taken a job for an international firm to help build a facility to clean up this country’s water supply (Jack’s an engineer of sorts).  It just so happens that within a few hours of their arrival, this coup takes place because, and some SPOILERS are needed here, the country was loaned money by western interests to build the facility, the country cannot pay back the debt, and now western interests will essentially own the country’s water and make their citizens slaves forced to buy water from them and work for them as local help.  Yeah, you can see the rebels point, even if their methods toward the innocents are inexcusable.

So, Jack and his family try to get out of the country alive, trying a variety of tactics, like reaching the American embassy, before finally realizing their only hope is to cross the border to neighboring Vietnam for asylum.  That’s right, Americans who are being hunted because of their country and their economic system’s imperialism only hope of being saved is to be granted asylum by a pseudo-Communist country that American lost an imperialist and unnecessary war to.  That is so fucking loaded with commentary that I can’t even begin to unpack it, and it’s one of the ways in which the filmmakers wear their leftist beliefs on their sleeves even as they make a movie about evil Asian hordes with guns and machetes.  As for the knowledge that Jack’s company is committing the evil, and the film’s insistence that western influence in the 3rd world has lead to this violence?  This is given to us directly, in dialogue, by the character of Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) whose origin isn’t quite explained but seems to be either MI6 or a former military officer turned corporate mercenary.  Hammond is kind of a human dues ex machina who shows up to save jack and his family when they need saving, and deliver much needed exposition when there’s no other way for the other characters to learn the information.  Brosnan, for his part, seemed to be having fun doing this, so the artificial nature of his character didn’t grate on me too much.

Politics aside, this film is mostly about connecting various sequences of Jack and his family running, hiding, and fighting back. Some of these sequences really work, like one in which Annie is looking through the peephole in her hotel window and, in an audio-free one shot, watches as a hooded man murders someone with a machete in the room across the hall from her.  That shot is glorious, and the tension as you put yourself in her no-win situation is taut and intense.  Some other sequences, like ones involving cheesy slow-mo and one in which the entire family, all four of them, navigates their way through an angry mob on a moped, strain credulity and are too far-fetched to really enjoy.  However, because the set-up of this film hits a nerve with me in general, and I’m easily able to place myself in their shoes, I more often than not felt feelings of fear and dread as I watched the film.  The realistic nature to the violence, save for a helicopter sequence, added to the effect.

The film doesn’t work when it tries to create family moments between sequences of tension.  The conversations Jack has with his wife, or the attempts to verbally take his kids minds off of the violence, just seem unlike anything that would actually transpire.  I know the filmmakers are going for how shared trauma can bring two people together (with the wife), but I don’t think after a night of running where the wife is almost raped that they can lie quietly in a clam before the next storm and express their love for another.  Also, while a father trying to comfort his child from the horrors of a situation worked in “Life is Beautiful”, which took place during the holocaust, it worked because the kid didn’t see anyone die in front of him.  if that kid had seen a group of people gassed to death, I doubt any of Benigni’s attempts to calm him down would have worked.  After seeing people shot in front of you, and after being throw across a chasm between rooftops, I don’t think making jokes a few minutes later would ever work.  The filmmakers should have cut two children down to one, and they should have just kept the tension going and not tried to build family dynamic between carnage.

Admittedly, the film gets a little repetitive at times.  The family is chased, they hide, one of them leaves hiding for some reason, there’s a struggle where the family takes a couple of the rebels down, and they run again.  Some sequences work really well, though, and those bang-up sequences carry the film through its lamer moments.

The director of this film is John Erick Dowdle, who cowrote the film with his brother.  He’s largely done middling horror films up until this point, such as “Quarantine” (an American remake of “Rec”) and the crappy Shyamalan-produced “Devil”.  However, his first film was the mostly successful “The Poughkeepsie Tapes”, which inexplicably was pulled from release without warning only to be dumped directly on to VOD with no fanfare many years later.  That film was a faux documentary splicing in “real” footage a serial killer shot on VHS and Super8 with fake interviews.  The interview portions suffered from actors not knowing how to deliver non-actorly-sounding dialogue, but the killer footage had a raw, disturbing, cinema verite feeling to them that made them hard to watch despite not being particularly violent or shocking.  “No Escape” is his best film since, and while it has many flaws, it takes a genuinely good concept, tries to ameliorate the racist and xenophobic issues inherent with the concept as much as he can, and delivers at least 2/3rds of a great movie and 1/3 of a fair movie to make a result that is, in my estimation, pretty damn good.

A word about the setting of this film.  While it was filmed in Thailand, it does not take place there.  A Google search reveals that three countries border Vietnam: China, Laos, and Cambodia.  “No Escape” obviously doesn’t take place in China (the country has a prime minister, for one) and the language written on signs in the film seems to be upside-down versions of the Cambodia language of Khmer.  This, combined with Cambodia’s violent history with the Kmer Rouge, lead me to believe the film is supposed to take place there.  I can understand not naming a particular country, but one thinks they should have made the place more fictionalized if they were afraid of offending an entire nation-state.

Lastly, why do the Vietnamese speak English to the rebels?  I understand them speaking English to the Americans, but then they speak English to the rebels, most of whom the film has shown us do not know English, yet the rebels still listen?  Weird.

I liked “No Escape” more than I should have based on its obvious issues (the very last scene is unnecessary and horrible), but I’m not going to lie and say it didn’t viscerally effect me as I watched it.  The film delivers what you want to see and feel going in to it. B+.


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