No Escape can’t escape its weak, and rather insulting, premise.
The Third World
Looking back on it, it’s hard to say No Escape even starts off as somewhat promising. It’s a rapid setup to get into the action and once the action begins, there isn’t much there.
In fact, it’d be a better movie — and make more sense — if the antagonists involved in the action were zombies. But more about that later.
As it is, the movie revolves around a simple situation. A family is moving to southeast Asia. A map shows a big destination splat that covers a relatively large swath of an area that looks to be right around Thailand and Cambodia. Sure, the movie was shot in Chiang Mai and Lampang, Thailand, but the destination isn’t outright identified — other than subsequent action revealing the country borders with Vietnam, which Thailand does not. Cambodia does.
That ambiguity certainly stems from the flat-out rude take this movie has on developing countries and their people, as well as on corporate America, for that matter. The protagonists should worry less about finding copies of USA Today and packing their own rice cooker and instead focus on phrasebooks and dictionaries.
Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris) works for a major American water company called Cardiff. The company’s come in to take over management of the local water treatment plant. Jack thinks pure drinking water is a good thing; he even designed an innovative valve back in the day (a notion which ultimately goes nowhere in the story). The locals, however, interpret his arrival to mean slavery of the indigenous peoples to the Americans.
In short order, the prime minister is killed and the locals put on an all-out assault on the hotel where Jack’s staying. They want Jack’s blood and the blood of every other Cardiff employee. And their family members. That means using hatchets, rifles, guns, knives, trucks, helicopters — anything to mow down the evil foreigners.
Action and Exposition
In the opening frames, as Jack and his family fly to southeast Asia, they meet a man named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan, Die Another Day). He’s some haggard old Brit with a nondescript job that affords him the opportunity to socialize with the friendly ladies of the area.
The Dwyers and Hammond meet on a plane. They chat. They enter town together. And then Hammond disappears.
As a demonstration of this movie’s predictability, it’s right when thoughts of “Gee, this would be a great time for Hammond to appear out of nowhere and save the day” is when, well, Hammond appears out of nowhere and saves the day. Gosh. Maybe he’s not entirely a sleazeball. Maybe he’s a man with skills.
At that point, Hammond offers all the exposition that explains the coup that’s engulfed the city. He takes credit for setting the stage for this environment wherein evil American companies enter third world countries and sell them things they can’t afford (roads, power plants, water treatment facilities) and when the country can’t pay, the Americans “own” the people.
Even Brosnan’s stern delivery can’t sell it.
Naturally, such malevolent ownership comes packed with resentment. But all of this talk of water and slavery essentially paints the people of third world (developing) countries — and in southeast Asia no less — as helpless and naive, without any international recourse in the International Court of Justice and with the company not exposed to any international shame. It’s more likely the business would lose its shirt and crawl back home with its tail between its legs if payments couldn’t be made.
It’s bad business all around. That’s not to say things don’t happen; various factions targeting foreigners and foreign interests makes the headlines from time to time. Violent clashes conflate movements. But this scenario, as executed here, rings hollow.
It’s a faceless coup, but the red scarves worn by those staging the coup are reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge. What’s lacking here is a Pol Pot, a face and a voice for the coup, a representative of the people being enslaved who can eloquently explain their concerns. It’s all just a nameless mob scene and putting more thought into it would be inconvenient for the Dowdle brothers, who collaborated in a similar writer/director capacity on Quarantine and As Above, So Below.
This is a horror movie masquerading as a politically-driven thriller. Send in the zombies.
For a much better movie — one based on a true story — check out The Killing Fields. It’s a similar story — the need to escape Cambodia during Pol Pot’s tempestuous, devastating coup that evacuated entire cities. It’s a brutal story of a madman laying waste to his own people during a particularly turbulent time in the region.
The Zombie Killing Fields
Here, a lot of the action feels like a retread of World War Z and Walking Dead, and even Escape from New York. There’s a desire to be politically relevant, but the action instead begins to teeter into Eli Roth torture porn territory.
Sure, the movie offers some vicarious thrills, but it’s undermined by a lot of unlikely situations resolved in an unlikely fashion. At every turn, the coup moves and acts like a band of zombies. After a while, once that notion’s implanted in the mind, it’s simply impossible to lend the movie any shred of credibility.
As one example, there’s a rooftop scene involving a helicopter. Unfortunately for the “good” people on the rooftop, the helicopter’s occupied by coup members. Stick a zombie in there piloting the craft and another one waving a machine gun in a menacing fashion. That’d be exciting.
It devolves into silliness instead of drama.
It’s been said coups are a way of life in the area. Actually, Thailand is currently under a coup and yet, while walking the streets of Bangkok, you’d have to know the coup is on to even realize the coup is on.
In terms of “official” cinema sensibilities, keep in mind The King and I has been banned in Thailand for decades. It’s pretty surprising filming No Escape was even done in Thailand, but it’d likely get better business if it involved zombies.
No Escape could’ve been relevant, but instead, kinda like a zombie, it’s got nothing to say and nowhere to go.