No Escape pits Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters (Claire Geare and Sterling Jerins) in the middle of a coup soon after the family moves to their new Asian home. When chaos reigns in the streets, and foreigners are brutally executed, the family must overcome unbelievable odds to ensure their safety.
The opening scene of the movie shows a diplomatic summit from the perspective of a guard. We watch as a waiter carries drinks to the officials speaking after the guard tests them presumably for poison. Knowing the premise of the movie, you expect a certain resolution to this sequence but the movie utilizes misdirection to keep you on the edge of your seat.
This opening scene does well to establish the impending civil unrest, and gives the movie’s introduction to the Dwyer family and Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), the experienced traveller they meet, a dreadful sense of doom. This tension helps the movie prod through the necessary expository dialogue telling us that Jack’s job involves bringing clean water to the nation and it’s hinted some of the locals don’t like it. Delivering this information while we know something the characters don’t makes it much more gripping.
Once the action kicks off, there’s hardly a chance to breathe. The Dwyers go through hell as a world they don’t know crumbles around them. The movie is paced spectacularly well with varied set pieces that separate themselves from normal action fare by having grounded characters. Jack Dwyer is an everyman whose sole objective is keeping his family safe. This goal doesn’t bring out an action hero within the character. Instead, Jack’s arc asks to what length a father and husband will go to protect his family. The movie builds this character arc well and rarely strays from it.
Pierce Brosnan’s role as the experienced traveller who gives Jack information he needs to survive is necessary to keep the movie somewhat believable. However the second act becomes slightly strained when Hammond tells Jack the real nature of his trip. It’s small enough to the point of being more homage than anything else, but it briefly detracts from the Dwyers’ story and risks putting the movie into a different thriller subgenre.
That small detour comes with one of the movie’s few breaks from the tension and action of the family’s fight for survival. But it also ushers in a satisfying third act that manages to bring the tension to a terrifying culmination. A group of people walked out of my screening at the climactic moment of the movie and I barely noticed as I was wrapped up in the action onscreen.
As tense and thrilling as No Escape is to watch, it suffers from a couple issues that are noticeable but don’t hamper the overall experience too much. For instance there are a few things set up (such as the reason for the coup and Jack’s connection to it) that don’t pay off anywhere significantly. And the motivations for the coup and the factions involved aren’t well defined either. That’s forgivable as we’re experiencing this through the viewpoint of an American family but it made the actions of the militants lack a certain punch.
These hiccups don’t prevent No Escape from being an effective action thriller. The movie establishes a sympathetic family and pits them in an unnerving and tense ordeal. The actions Owen Wilson takes to protect his family follow a logical trajectory without transforming him into an action hero. By grounding the violence in this way, No Escape becomes a breathtaking and relatable journey that will keep your heart racing and blood pumping until it’s disturbing climax.