Screw this movie.

So close. No Escape was so close to becoming that movie — that under-the-radar gem no one expected anything from but turns out to be the stunner of the year. As added stakes, this one has the opportunity to dethrone Ernie Hudson and Ray Liotta’s legendary (in my mind at least) No Escape as the best No Escape.

Oh, man, it was so close to doing all that. For the first hour or so, the 2015 film had the 1994 version in the hammerlock. But then the Dowdle brothers got scratchy and wimped out in a big way, derailing the entire film and dooming it to a lifetime of inconsequentiality. More on that later.

To start: Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson, Wedding Crashers) and his family plop down in an unnamed Southeast Asia country. He’s about to start a job engineering a clean water project and though his wife Annie (Lake Bell, In a World) is uncertain, the job market is what it is.

Of course, it’s not too long until Annie’s intuition is proven correct and all hell breaks loose. The Dwyers suddenly find themselves trapped in the middle of a violent coup, as rebels patrol the streets, shooting and hacking to death anyone they find. Eventually they lay siege to the hotel, putting untold innocents to death, forcing the Dwyers into a frantic race for survival.

I’ll stop there because, frankly, that’s where No Escape crests. This hour-plus of horrific action represents — no joke — the tensest moments I’ve spent in a movie theater in…I don’t know how many years. From the moment the coup begins (and you get hints at what’s coming thanks to a foreboding opener) to the second half of the film, the pacing is relentless and there is a true sense of danger permeating ever moment.

Here’s why: director John Erick Dowdle (who also co-wrote the film with his brother Drew) shoots this stuff like a horror movie. At this point we have no idea what the political impetus is behind the revolt. All we know as an audience is there is an unstoppable evil forced of death that is massacring innocents. But instead of a zombie army or hockey-masked serial killer, it’s a mob of deranged citizens-from-whatever-this-country-is. It’s an incredibly effective approach and kept my forearms stapled to the cinema armrests.

But then — it all goes POOF. I’ll do my best to sidestep spoilers, but if you want to ditch out of the rest of the review here are the abridged study notes: the Dowdles lose their nerve.

Instead of keeping this mob of death the mysterious, unstoppable evil, they ascribe motivation to their actions and — surprise! — make the true villains the colonial dogs of The West. We get this vomitous exposition from Pierce Brosnan (Die Another Day) who otherwise plays a decent action hero here. See, turns out the horrible murderous psychopaths are actually aggrieved dads and husbands, who want to get back at their country for selling out their lands to foreign interests and incurring all kinds of global debt or something. Keep in mind we had just seen, not ten minutes ago, these sympathetic family guys hacking innocent people to death with machetes and nearly raping Annie in front of her children. But, really, they’re the victims.

The Blu-ray: an excellent 1.85:1, 1080p transfer, a punchy 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, director’s commentary, deleted scenes and a lightweight promo-filled behind-the-scenes featurette.

THE VERDICT
Once again, Ernie Hudson comes out on top.

 

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