When Eli Roth makes horror movies about foreigners, he suggests they will kidnap, torture, and eat you. Which is scary and all, but why invent scary things that happen in foreign countries when plenty of scary stuff actually happens? That’s what brothers John and Drew Dowdle have done with No Escape. The Dowdles cut their teeth on a creepy mockumentary called Poughkeepsie Tapes and then went on to do far more with the [REC] movies than the guys who actually made the [REC] movies. Their English-languge remake, Quarantine, and especially the clever follow-up, Quarantine 2: Terminal, are a marked contrast to [REC]’s confused slide into cheap silliness and irrelevance.
The first part of No Escape is promising as a horror movie, despite (because of?) the presence of two little girls. The moment you realize the protagonists have young daughters, you figure No Escape is going to pull its punches. You just can’t have kids in horror movies these days. Was Guillermo del Toro the last guy to dare to have a horror movie in which the monsters killed a child when one of the giant cockroaches in Mimic blindsided a street urchin? But No Escape flirts with grim high stakes as it reveals the ruthlessness of its monster. Are the two little girls safe when so many people are being shot in the head, mowed down with AK-47s, and hacked to death by machetes?
The monster here is a violent coup in an unspecified Asian country (never mind the Thai writing on the signs and especially never mind that the capital is conveniently on the border with Vietnam, which seems like a terrible place for any country to have its capital). The conspicuously blonde Owen Wilson and his family are caught unawares as rebels take over the palace and then the streets and eventually the tourist hotels. It’s got a bit of zombie apocalypse flavor, with a touch of The Purge. Because tourists and relief workers are targets, it recalls the kidnappings and beheadings by Islamic extremists. But in a brief odd bit of moralizing, No Escape explains that the rebels have a legitimate grievance against the West. Do we maybe deserve this? Did we invite this monster? Did we indeed invent it? Just as a slasher kills teenagers who have sex and use drugs, is this monster killing people whose countries protect corporations and dole out bad loans? It’s a facile but fascinating twist, but it comes too late.
The Dowdles and/or the Weinsteins who financed their movie don’t have the courage of their convictions. No Escape pulls its punches. Just as it hits the lowest level of degradation — where your realize the monster won’t just kill you, but it will strip you of your dignity and your humanity — James Bond arrives to save the day. From here on out, No Escape will be a thriller in which this golden boy from Texas and his Mama Grizzly wife give these rebels the what-for because America. Just like The Impossible, another movie about how privileged visiting white people caught up in an irresistible force shouldn’t have to suffer like the poor brown people who live there, No Escape turns out to be the opposite of its title.