No Escape

White Americans on the run from bloodthirsty savages? Insert ‘THAT’S RACIST!’ image macro here’ – MacDara Conroy on No Escape

They don’t make movies like this anymore. No Escape is a total throwback to those gung ho action-adventure thrillers of the ’70s and ’80s, replete with gratutitous explosions and blurs of machine gun fire, politically incorrect adversaries, and naive but ridiculously resourceful Americans striving to survive with the odds stacked against them. There are so many examples to choose from, but I’d pick Die Hard as probably the apex of the genre: the ultimate manifestation of inflated nationalistic – no, jingoistic – pride, that strangely singular American belief that every true man (and it’s always a man) has it in him to fight for his family, or his country, or even just himself, when it comes to the crunch.

John Erick Dowdle’s film (not to be confused with the Ray Liotta island prison classic) is clearly shaped in that mould, as an in-over-his-head civil engineer (Owen Wilson in the Bruce Willis role), with occasional assistance from a mysterious stranger (a colourfully shirted Pierce Brosnan), struggles to protect his wife (Lake Bell, In A World…) and two young – and unbelievably annoying – daughters amid a bloody coup in an unnamed South East Asian country. (Let’s call it Not-Thailand, because it’s so obviously Thailand it’s all the more conspicuous that the script is devoid of any sense of place. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself there.) The film’s violent-revolutionary bad guys carry overtones of militaristic actioners like pretty much anything Chuck Norris made for Cannon, while the escape-from-the-maze plot borrows naturally from Carpenter’s Escape from New York and, perhaps more charitably, Walter Hill’s late ’70s classic The Warriors. Can you dig it?

Switching genres here after some tepidly received horrors ([Rec] remake Quarantine, the farcical Devil and Parisian catacombs shocker As Above, So Below), writer-director Dowdle has a better handle on what an action movie should look and feel like. The pacing rarely slackens as Wilson ferries his family from set piece to thrilling set piece. And those set pieces are all fairly well executed tributes to the genre staples: there’s the ‘here’s the good guys coming to save us oh no wait it’s the bad guys’ bit, the ‘sanctuary turned snakepit’ bit, the ‘hide while the bad guys walk by and hope they don’t see us’ bit. In that respect No Escape hits all the right notes.

The bum notes are in its unconscionable racism. Let’s not beat around the bush: White Americans on the run from bloodthirsty savages? Insert ‘THAT’S RACIST!’ image macro here. No Escape fits pretty squarely with the notion of self-righteous denial in the face of guilt over one’s country’s transgressions abroad. American fears of foreign fanatics are given much justification here in a film that dehumanises its subjects to such a degree, there’s even one scene that could have come straight from a zombie movie. If there’s any subtlety or nuance at all – say, in the constant references to the family’s frustration at finding themselves in a place where English isn’t the lingua franca – it’s completely lost beneath the film’s overwhelming sentiment of ‘white people good, funny-talking unknowable others bad’.

Maybe the worst example of that is a very uncomfortable scene in which our leading man literally beats the living shit out of a rebel foot-soldier who threatens to give up the family’s hiding place. If this is an attempt at injecting some moral ambiguity in the hero’s actions, it’s a failure, as the act is almost instantly forgotten. There’s no ambiguity there. Later on there’s a hand-wringy attempt to mollify such concerns with a ‘Who are the real bad guys?’ speech by Brosnan’s grizzled expat (without spoiling the details, a key plot point concerns the effects of globalisation) but it’s hard to take when Brosnan alone speaks for the enemy’s motivations, without giving them their own voice, and the entirely of the movie that surrounds it makes the answer pretty damn clear.

Before I take any flak for not holding up the often plainly racist original treasure-trash of the genre to the same standards, that’s apples and oranges. Many of those movies can be enjoyed today in spite of their poisonous jingoism, and even given the different era it’s not hard to imagine that kind of exploitation schtick as intentional, if naive. No Escape plays its homage dead straight, however, with not a hint of tongue in cheek, and in the year 2015 there’s simply no excuse for it. That’s why they don’t make movies like this anymore.

No Escape opens nationwide on Friday September 4th

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