This mean and vigorous men's adventure pulp throwback has everything going against it. It's a late-August release whose leads, Owen Wilson and Lake Bell, tend to be the best things in movies you otherwise regret seeing. The trailers, teasing the story of a toothsome American family hunted by peasant-rebels in a foreign revolution, suggest Hotel Rwanda: The Ride — with mobs, machetes and many scenes of children weeping at danger. Everything about it looks wrong-century and wrong-headed: By what moral calculus does it make sense, in the midst of an Asian genocide, to worry over one Western family rather than the fates of millions? And why do film producers still presume that audiences can't invest in international suspense without Hollywood's archaic idea of everyman at the center of the action?
Those demerits mostly hold true in the film itself. But there's good news, too. No Escape, while cruel, is often uncommonly suspenseful. And by pitting its white leads against the citizen hordes of Southeast Asia, No Escape is also uncommonly honest about the fears and assumptions that fuel adventure fiction — here, the Other is not abstracted away to orcs or aliens. There's fun to be had in working out whether the filmmakers are, for all the movie's high emotion and tension, at some level being satiric: Here's a bloody coup in some unnamed Asian country presented as the worst vacation ever. The movie might be a big hit with people who sell time-shares. "See?" they'll say. "This is why you never leave the resort."
The mob is relentless, barging through doors and climbing to the roof of the hotel in which Wilson, Bell and two daughters are bunkered — they're people-as-velociraptors, the latest update of the inhuman street gang from John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13.
Director John Erick Dowdle is going for clutch-your-throat terror rather than action-flick jollies, and he and his cast excel at claustrophobic fear. It's hard to shake the scene of Bell pressed against a door to hold back the marauders without tipping them off that the room is occupied, all while an elementary-aged daughter observes in shocked silence.
Later, the family must vault from a compromised hiding spot, leaping out over an alley and onto the next roof. What in most movies would be a quick, forgettable stunt becomes a sweaty, detailed set piece: How does a family of four pull off the heroics usually left to a conveniently on-his-own Tom Cruise? Dowdle, who wrote the script with his brother Drew, devotes welcome care to the practicalities — the tears, the potty breaks, the clothes stolen off corpses — of domestic life on the run. They miss no opportunity to jolt us, but they also pull off scenes of heartening delicacy. As Bell and Wilson's characters comfort the kids, with dad jokes and telling hand-squeezes, I found myself wishing these actors might one day topline a movie together that's about something other than trying not to get beheaded.
The beheaders aren't afforded the humanity that the Americans are, of course. Still, they do have their reasons for rampaging. Pierce Brosnan turns up as an occasional Bond ex machina, saving the Americans and explaining the locals with a speech about resource exploitation right out of Chomsky. Is it the Dowdles' best joke or greatest oversight that this family can dash through a revolution for two hours of screen time without once hearing from the masses what that revolution is about? It's like some parody of outsourcing: The filmmakers fly a grave Brit to Indochina to handle the exposition. At least they let him get scruffed up for once.
That the revolutionaries have legit beef doesn't explain their collective bloodthirst for this one family. The script takes some stabs at explaining why Wilson's character in particular might be seen as the enemy, but hardly justifies the animalistic, orgiastic extremes onscreen here. Bell, her shirt torn open, gets pinned by rebels eager to rape her to what may as well be a sacrificial altar — throw in a witch doctor and a cannibal's cauldron, and the image could be on the cover of Man's Life in 1956. (Or in Donald Trump's head today.) A climactic scene involving a daughter, her father and a pair of handguns is sadistic and protracted, so much so that it pulled me fully out of the movie. The suspense had been bruising all along, but now I wasn't worried about the characters — I was guessing whether the Weinstein Co. would dare let that trigger get pulled.
There are moments that tank. The brothers try three times to capture that something's-not-right moment just before everything goes wrong, but they never master the timing — they may as well be sitting behind you, whispering, "Wait for it ... wait for it ..." (Worse, they actually give that line to Brosnan.) They try to juice big moments with slo-mo, and sometimes, when they don't have the footage they need to show us what's supposed to be happening, they'll shove lots of related images in our faces and hope we just take their word for it.
But mostly No Escape is as accomplished as it is vicious. It's crafted with skill, acted with emotional resonance and un-shy about the truth that killing is never bang-bang fun. But it encourages the rankest of fears about the rest of the world, playing out like an Asia-set Purge sequel, like your craziest relative's idea of what other countries are like. Can it be dumb and irresponsible but also cannily parodic all at once?