NOT since Saigon in the 1970s has an American operation in Southeast Asia been as ill-conceived as “No Escape,” a taut, well-made and entirely dubious thriller.
Where does “No Escape” take place? It’s about a Texas family that arrives in an unnamed Asian country only to immediately be swept up in a horribly violent coup that sends them scampering for survival through foreign, unfamiliar streets strewn with bodies and blood.
The film, co-written and directed by John Erick Dowdle (“As Above, So Below”), was shot in Thailand two years ago, after which a real-life coup by the Thai army overthrew the government. Perhaps to avoid too direct a connection to that coup, “No Escape” (initially titled “The Coup”) makes no specific mention of any government. Who needs politics in a political thriller?
Beside the murderous chants of a mob or the bland courtesies of a hotel clerk, the natives have no dialogue.
Instead, they are merely the vague backdrop to the harrowing plight of a white American family: Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare). He, an engineer, has taken a job with a dominant corporation whose ownership of the city’s public works has helped inspire the unrest.
Having just deplaned and plopped their bags down in a hotel hours before street warfare erupts, a haze of confusion envelopes the Dwyers, just as it does us. Can a thriller about a coup contain next to zero context about the politics and people involved? Is it enough to drop “Taken,” kids in tow, into a faceless Asian nightmare?
Of course it’s not. Granted, “No Escape” may have once existed in a different form and, for one reason or another, cut any local details. But the absence of literally any engagement with the conflict at hand or its native tragedies, “No Escape” sacrifices its legitimacy.
It’s a shame, too, because the filmmaking is often impressive. The movie, shot by the cinematographer Leo Hinstin, opens with a gracefully orchestrated scene depicting the assassination of the prime minister, a shot begun trailing drink glasses and ended with blood.
The action, too, is breathless, as Jack leads his family (sometimes with the help of Pierce Brosnan’s CIA agent) from one close scrap to another, never pausing for a deeper understanding of the turmoil, always elevated by the easy suspense of children in peril.
Around them fall countless victims. But their stories aren’t part of “No Escape.” They’re just exotic scenery. One and a half stars out of four.