‘No Escape’ Is A Peculiar Blend Of Intense Realism And Hollywood Schmaltz

No Escape is a fictional thriller set in a never-named Southeast Asian country (it would have to be either Cambodia or Laos based on geography) about a family trapped in a hotel during an uprising. I’m a big fan of the caught-in-the-middle-of-a-violent-meltdown genre, but the odd thing about No Escape is that it attempts both the intense, graphic realism of Hotel Rwanda and the feel-good Hollywood catharsis of Argo.

That might sound like not such a bad thing, combining two good movies, but you soon realize that they’re diametrically opposed. No Escape asks us to live in two different realities simultaneously — to accept it as both a real-life drama movie and as a movie-movie.

Let’s put it this way: if you want your movie to have a screaming foreign rebel preparing to brutally rape the protagonist’s wife in front of his kids (and this is absolutely a real thing that could happen, which is terrible and terrifying and intense), that rebel probably shouldn’t have cheesy scars on his face like in Red Tails or The Lion King. That’s the point at which the gritty realism stops and we realize we’re watching a movie-movie. And nothing against movie-movies, but if we’re noticing that we’re watching a movie-movie in the middle of what looks like it’s about to become a graphic rape scene, we’re suddenly thinking less about the horror of rape and more about why some creepo wants us to witness one. No Escape isn’t even that schmaltzy, but it’s just enough to ruin the kind of heavy realism it’s attempting.

Which isn’t to say that No Escape is a total disaster, it has a lot of interesting ideas. For one, I’d watch an entire movie about Pierce Brosnan’s character, a guy I like to call “Realistic James Bond.” He’s some kind of ambiguous foreign operator who’s charming, but amoral and probably deeply despicable (with a splash of racism), but also the kind of guy you’d thank God was on your side if the sh*t really hit the fan. Let’s face it, if something hairy goes down in a foreign land, chances are decent the guy who saves you probably isn’t someone you’d bring to a cocktail party. Liberals, I think we can recognize the truth, or at least the potential truth of this, without sacrificing our principals. And conservatives, don’t interpret this to mean that every racist asshole with a gun is a potential hero.

Also, it should be noted that the press screening for No Escape was held the night before its official release, meaning the studio was almost certainly trying to hide it from critics. Which is always a fun little mystery. Given the amount of films studios flaunt that they should be embarrassed about, you have to wonder what it is about one that actually shames one. No Escape is a grab bag of possible issues (or a combination/confluence of them). There’s the weird rape stuff, and the fact that it’s a bit of a tweener, genre-wise. But if I had to bet on one, I’d guess that the biggest reason The Weinstein Company tried to keep No Escape under wraps was to avoid being called racist for depicting hundreds of nameless, bloodthirsty, raping brown people.

It’s a shame, because this criticism (I haven’t seen specific examples yet, but I’m betting if you Google “no escape” “problematic” tomorrow it’s going to come up) seems unfair. One of the central fears of being trapped in a dangerous situation in a foreign land is feeling like an outsider, knowing that just the color of your skin and where you came from makes you a target. That seems realistic, not racist. And if anything, it seems like it gives white people a small taste of what racism feels like. Should we be exposed to more stories from the perspective of those brown folks? Sure, but that doesn’t make one that’s not invalid.

And is it unrealistic? Every time someone makes a movie about a white person being trapped in a hostile foreign environment, be it Argo or Lone Survivor or etc., they always have to bend over backwards to show that some of the Iranians/Afghans/Cambodians/Nazis were actually caring and helpful, not bloodthirsty (#NotAllCambodians!). Which isn’t much better, because it can feel they’re overcompensating, or as if they’re saying “Afghans should be more like Abdul, Abdul was one of the good ones.”

You’re basically damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The most practical solution is to just not make that movie, but I don’t think that’s quite right either. Bottom line, No Escape could be better, but I don’t think it’s racist. However pat No Escape‘s explanation for the rebels’ anger is (Pierce Brosnan basically offers a three-sentence summary of Confessions of an Economic Hitman), it does explain it. I can understand if spending three sentences blaming corporate multi-nationals seems cheap, but there’s something to the idea of comfortable white folks suddenly coming face to face with the folks on whose backs that comfort has been built on. Maybe there’s a better vehicle for that than a shoot-em-up, but it still seems more like a critique of white privilege than an example of it.

On a lighter note, Owen Wilson/Lake Bell’s kids are incredibly annoying. It’s not that I think kids can’t be annoying in real life, but I have hard time believing movie kids who are still whining about their doll when they’re being chased by men holding machine guns and just saw someone get their brains bashed in. In those situations I tend to think a child’s immaturity manifests itself in frozen, pants-pissing terror, not in annoying complaints about being hungry or missing their dolly. Also, what’s the end game for the screenwriter here? To make us hate the little kid? Stop it.

Hyper-violent, hyper-realistic, torn-from-the-possible-headlines thrillers are tough. All it takes is one scar-faced bad guy or whiny milk baby to puncture the entire facade. No Escape doesn’t quite pull it off, but it deserves at least some credit for trying something interesting.

Grade: C+

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.