Eighty years ago, “No Escape” would have been 80 minutes long, cast with second-tier stars and shot on a studio back lot – a typical B picture, used to fill out the bottom half of the bill with a more prestigious project.
Today it runs 103 minutes, still has a second-tier cast – Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan – and went all the way to Thailand to film its story of an American family trying to get out of an unnamed country after a coup. But it’s fundamentally the same film it would have been in 1935, except for moments of extreme violence.
The same characters survive who would have survived then. The same characters get killed, and in the same order. The anti-business message would not have been permitted, because Hollywood in its Golden Age knew all American corporations were devoted to good deeds. But the narrative by brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle would have followed the same path.
Jack Dwyer (Wilson), an engineer with a checkered career, moves to an unidentified capital city in Asia to supervise an overhaul of its waterworks. A coup breaks out the next day, and militia execute Americans on sight. Jack, his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters bolt for safety.
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The entire film after the opening consists of chases, captures, escapes and further pursuit. The family gets help from a taxi driver known as Kenny Rogers (Sahajak Boonthanakit) and an expatriate named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), who’s a British Ernest Hemingway: hard-drinking, grizzled, scarred and talking about his fight with a tiger.
Hammond supplies the explanation for the uprising. America and England have built the host country’s infrastructure, floating loans in the process too large to be repaid. When the Asians can’t meet those loans, the Westerners take over what they’ve built and control the water and power supplies.
We don’t really need this justification; with or without it, the adult Dwyers must still smash and blast their way toward safety across the Vietnamese border. (That would make the setting Laos or Cambodia, though neither shares much of a river border with Vietnam.)
The actors do well, with Brosnan playing a kind of James Bond who has fallen into seediness and shady dealings. Bell carries her weight in the emotional scenes and the battles, and Wilson proves (as he occasionally has) that he can do more than be a laid-back comic foil.
Fair warning: Director John Erick Dowdle exposes us to victims being bludgeoned to death, mowed down by machine guns, brought to the edge of sexual assault and run over at top speed by trucks. We’d have been spared that 80 years ago, and a good thing, too.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan.
Director: John Erick Dowdle.
Length: 103 minutes.
Rating: R (strong violence, including a sexual assault, and language).