Saturday, August 29, 2015

No Escape / **½ (R)

Jack Dwyer: Owen Wilson
Annie Dwyer: Lake Bell
Lucy Dwyer: Sterling Jerins
Beeze Dwyer: Claire Geare
Hammond: Pierce Brosnan
Kenny Roger: Sahajak Boonthanakit

The Weinstein Company presents a movie directed by John Erick Dowdle. Written by John Erick Dowdle & Drew Dowdle. Running time: 103 min. Rated R (for strong violence including a sexual assault, and for language).

“No Escape” is somewhat of an anomaly in today’s movie market. It’s a throwback to the films of the 70s in the way it doesn’t adhere to the current politics about making movies. It’s an original story, a thriller that doesn’t draw from a “true story” about actual people who live through an actual harrowing world event. It involves a fairly big name Hollywood actor working well outside of the genre stereotypes and the niche he’s built for himself. And, it’s the first foray outside the horror genre by its writing/directing team, the Brothers Dowdle.

That’s not to say it’s above pandering to its audience with Hollywood cliché. In fact, the screenplay is the major drawback of this otherwise fairly well-made film. It doesn’t have the grit and grime of a 70s screenplay, even though it should. It handles its audience with kid gloves and its characters as archetypes, missing out on that real-life feel this story deserves. Yet, it’s still somewhat refreshing to see a movie that isn’t rooted in some sort of comic book or well-established film franchise after the Summer of the Sequel/Reboot that we all just endured. I wasn’t all that displeased with most of the franchise entries this summer, but there’s something of a relief that comes with watching a film that has all of its story and mythology contained within its individual running time.

Owen Wilson is Jack Dwyer, a family man who has taken a job with a large conglomerate company that has something to do with water refinement. This is after some sort of business failure that has forced him to uproot his wife and two daughters and move them to Cambodia. Cambodia is never mentioned by name in the film, although it’s the only country that works geographically with the film’s plot. The film was banned by the Cambodian government due to the use of upside down Khmer lettering on police shields used in one scene. The day after they arrive in their hotel a coup breaks out and the paramilitary rebels target Americans specifically tied to the company for which Jack works. They must escape the country in order to survive.

The story starts in a fog of its own plot considerations. It seems to be the trend these days for screenwriters to keep their audiences in the dark about as many plot details as they can for as long as they can. Perhaps this is a method taught in screenwriting programs to ratchet up suspense, but it seems to me screenwriters practice it to an unnecessary level. This movie isn’t exactly a mystery. It’s a thriller. It’s not even a political thriller, in that it’s focus is only on the family’s plight to survive their predicament and not on the politics of the region. I suspect the Brothers Dowdle wanted to avoid any finger pointing by identifying a specific country, especially since the politics are made up for the story. That I can accept, but why keep Jack’s reasoning for taking this job so vague, or even what he is there to do? It does the plot no favors to have the audience guessing as to his purpose there. There is an opening scene involving drinking water, but we don’t really know that scene is about the water until much later in the movie.

A little more focus on Jack’s purpose and the reasons why he had to take the job would also heighten the tension between he and his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), in the early scenes. We know she’s unhappy about the move and nervous about the environment, but we don’t know why or even anything about the strength of their relationship beyond their obvious love for their daughters. Some news reports about the civil unrest in the region could also serve as a point of tension between the characters and a source of anticipation for the plot.

There is one point of mystery that makes sense. A character who helps them early on in the film is played by Pierce Brosnan. He identifies himself as Hammond, and although Brosnan plays him as a sort of British version of a hillbilly, it’s obvious he isn’t who he seems at first. Something Brosnan has made abundantly clear since leaving the James Bond franchise is that he just loves not playing James Bond. Like in his excellent work in the amazing hitman flick “The Matador,” Brosnan sheds all of his super spy charm and looks to present a much more visceral character. That is until the screenplay trips him up with its big plot reveal. His change of heart is too contradictory to the character he must’ve been before the film’s action begins to be believable.

Like Brosnan, Wilson is clearly making an effort here to leave the work that made him a star behind. Generally associated with comedies, Wilson saddles up for a fully dramatic role here. I could almost hear my own mother whispering in my ear throughout the movie that she just couldn’t take him seriously. However, he’s not half bad. I couldn’t buy him as an action star in “Behind Enemy Lines”, but as a much more everyman hero here he’s more believable. He doesn’t have the looks of a Hollywood action star, and that works well for a family man. It’s also nice to see the talented Lake Bell get some possible serious Hollywood leading lady consideration with a lead in a mainstream storyline.

The fact is “No Escape” is a well-made thriller. John Erick Dowdle definitely establishes himself as a director who can handle genres other than horror. The film’s drawbacks all lie within its screenplay. It would’ve been nice if the Brother’s Dowdle had brought in a third screenwriter to clean up some of their vagaries and dialogue. There is a conversation between the husband and wife about halfway through the movie that is unnecessary and filled with every cliché in the book. When she told him that if they died tomorrow it would’ve all been worth it, it took every ounce of restraint not to call out, “Bullshit!”  With a better script that didn’t rely so heavily on screenplay cliché trends and trusted the sophistication of an audience not be insulted by being told flat out just what was going on to begin with, this would’ve been a first rate thriller.

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