No Escape review: 'Pierce Brosnan provides the laughs, hamming it up in this lean and efficient thriller'
The ads for No Escape make it look like one of those numbskull disaster movies beloved of Roland Emmerich: Owen Wilson and Lake Bell rush towards the camera, clutching children, looking windswept and interesting, being pursued by God knows what.
It's not a tsunami or an irascible dinosaur, however, because John Erick Dowdle's film is gritty, grounded stuff, a lean and efficient thriller that only loses the run of itself towards the very end. And while it's initially disconcerting to be confronted with Owen Wilson in a serious role, he quickly becomes the emotional fulcrum of a movie that barrels forward with commendable momentum.
He is Jack Dwyer, a Texan engineer who has transplanted his wife Annie (Ms. Bell) and two young children to an unspecified South-east Asian country to start a new career with an American company that specialises in dams and hydraulics. Though his harried wife is full of misgivings, Jack arrives charged with gung-ho optimism, and assumes the loud bangs that rend the night sky around his hotel are simply Asian fireworks.
In fact they're the starting gun for a bloody coup, which by daybreak is raging around the city, as armed mobs roam the streets looking for westerners to decapitate. After witnessing a particularly nasty riot, Jack races back to his five-star hotel to organise a hasty evacuation. But a mob armed with guns and machetes has already invaded it, and is going from floor to floor massacring white tourists.
Top of their hit list is Jack, because this is a peasant uprising and his company has been accused of robbing water and ruining the livelihoods of poor farmers. And though Jack manages to reach his family and sneak them out of their hotel room, they end up stranded on the hotel roof, surrounded and seemingly doomed.
To their rescue comes Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), an affable Englishman they'd met on the flight over and mistaken for an idiot. He seems drunk most of the time, smokes cheap cigars and has an unhealthy interest in the local night-life. But Hammond turns out to be some sort of mercenary, handy with guns and chillingly calm in a crisis. He helps Jack and his family out of a very tight spot, and sneaks them to a safe house where they regroup and dine on something white and chewy that Hammond insists is chicken.
But their problems are very far from over, because if they appear by day they'll be torn to pieces, and Hammond reckons their only hope is to float upriver to the border with Vietnam, a country with few reasons to warmly welcome Americans.
No Escape's plot is so simple it verges on the remedial, and some US critics have accused it of casual racism because of its blithe depiction of bloodthirsty Asians. I think they're probably taking it too seriously, because despite its lofty ecological overtones No Escape has no interest in geopolitics - it's a thriller, pure and simple, a busy entertainment that turns a bland story into a gripping and consistently suspenseful drama.
In his recent collaborations with Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson has become so synonymous with wry comedy that has his casting here could have been problematic. But he knuckles down and doesn't put a foot wrong, ably supported by another reformed comic, Lake Bell.
It's Pierce Brosnan who provides the laughs in No Escape, hamming it up most enjoyably as Hammond, a debauched cockney who wears loud shirts and bad hats and is welcomed with open arms in all the local brothels.
His scene-stealing antics are well judged, and you find yourself wondering what he's up to when he's not around, especially late on, when No Escape's winning pace finally begins to slacken.
John Erick Dowdle handles his action sequences excellently, particularly the scenes in the besieged hotel, which are so tense they're hard to watch.