Enemy Lines: Harrowing "No Escape" offers high tension, if not much nuance

No Escape (2015)
103 min., rated R.

There is a riveting type of audience manipulation and a cheap one, and xenophobic survival thriller "No Escape" mostly gets it right. Director John Erick Dowdle, who co-wrote the screenplay with screenwriter-producer brother Drew, has already proven his genre filmmaking chops with his highly respectable 2008 "[REC]" remake "Quarantine," 2010's potential-wasting "Devil," and 2014's unexpectedly decent found-footage horror film "As Above, So Below," and here, he pushes even more buttons in a more real-world milieu. "No Escape" might not have any hard-hitting sociological or political layers to share, but as a simple, visceral experience, it boasts impressively tense showmanship and unwavering urgency that will make one's stomach drop on more than one occasion.

Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) is relocating wife Annie (Lake Bell) and daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare) from Austin, Texas to somewhere in Southeast Asian for an engineering job transfer that he hopes will help provide the fourth-world country with clean water. When they reach the Imperial Lotus Hotel by the aid of friendly British expat Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), who may just come to their rescue later on, the electricity is faulty, and the TV and phone are out. The next morning when Jack goes out for a newspaper, he gets caught between a rebel army and military riot police. Once it becomes clear that American civilians are targets, including Jack's new multinational employer, Mr. and Mrs. Dwyer make it their mission to get their daughters to the U.S. Embassy, that is if the gun-waving, machete-wielding rebels don't get to them first. Can they get the hell out of dodge?

Before setting off the coup, "No Escape" opens with an effective bang of a tracking shot that glides down the halls of a palace in the unnamed Asian country to find the Prime Minister making an agreement and then being assassinated. The calm before the storm begins with economical setup, establishing the Dwyer family and a playful banter between tourist Hammond and his cab-driving sidekick, "Kenny Rogers" (Sahajak Boonthanakit). When the mob brutally attacks in the streets and executes an American man right in front of Jack's hotel, genuine panic sets in and primes Jack for a fight-or-flight response. High tension officially kicks in when Jack and Annie realize Lucy has snuck out of the room to go swimming on a lower-level pool deck, just as men are slaughtering tourists with machetes in a nearby room. It's a while before there's any letup when the family joins other survivors on the hotel roof, which proves to be a target zone rather than a safe area, and then Jack has no other option than to throw his two daughters over to Annie on an adjacent rooftop. This particular sequence exemplifies the fine line between preposterously Hollywood and engrossing. Director John Erick Dowdle, cinematographer Léo Hinstin, and editor Elliot Greenberg should have cooled it on the overuse of bombastic slow-motion, tempting viewers with a few unintended giggles, but otherwise, the film can be taken seriously most of the time. Not shy or gutless when it comes to the violence, the film is also very grim and unforgiving when need be with two concessions. There are but two scenes late in the film that reek of calculated, gratuitous cheap thrills, one in which Annie becomes the victim of an attempted rape and the other having one of the daughters being forced to hold a gun on her father, while another gun is placed at her temple. Fortunately exceptions rather than the rule, these perilous moments are ballsy but distasteful at the same time they lack the power director Dowdle is after.

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell would only seem miscast and out of their element because one is just used to seeing them in usually comedic fare and more physically capable actors in action pictures such as this one. It's smart casting; Wilson should not be underestimated, and for those in the know, Bell actually challenged herself once before as a woman on a camping trip with her two girlfriends who all refused to be victims in 2013's savagely tense indie thriller "Black Rock." They both carry their weight as loving, facetious but ordinary parents who, when the shit hits the fan in extraordinary circumstances, become resourceful and are quick to react. Primal instincts rear their head when violence against violence calls for it, but Jack and Annie Dwyer never make the unbelievable jump into trained-to-kill heroes who walk away without a scrape. As womanizing tourist Hammond, Pierce Brosnan brings rare, offbeat levity, especially when he gets to sing a drunken karaoke rendition of Huey Lewis' "Heart and Soul." Later, when Hammond becomes a savior to the Dwyers, he offers up the one line in the film that claims the western government is part of the problem and that Southeast Asian people are just trying to protect their families, too.

Admittedly, "No Escape" is slightly jingoistic, but it has garnered more criticism and controversy than it rightfully deserves for being less than politically correct. Director John Erick Dowdle set out to make a harrowing, effectively stressful white-knuckler and not a nuanced exploration of harsh geopolitical climate, and on that primal level, it works as a piece of knife-cutting tension. In its heart, this is really a horror film about a family's survival. The sides are depicted in black and white, figuratively and literally. Lest we have another "The Interview" situation on our hands, the exact country is never identified (though the film was shot in Thailand and it seems the country borders Vietnam, so one could guess and say Cambodia) and the rebels aren't given much of a point-of-viewthey're pissed, and that's itso they're relegated to movie villain status, killing anything they find. With that said, not every native is bad, as one even hides the family away in his garden. It's doubtful the Dowdle brothers had any intention of being exploitative or even racist, and where it really counts, "No Escape" will have audiences biting their nails and gripping their armrests until there's nothing left.

Grade: B -