White people on holiday are threatened by Asian stereotypes in ‘No Escape’

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

In this globalized age, Hollywood studios can no longer afford to trample over local sensibilities. Earlier this year it was revealed that an upcoming thriller about an American family caught in a Southeast Asian revolution would be having its title changed from “The Coup” to the less provocative “No Escape.”

Was it because the producers had realized it might be a trifle insensitive at a time when Thailand — where “No Escape” was shot — was still in the grip of a military junta? Nothing of the sort. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the name was changed because it hadn’t tested well with American audiences, who weren’t sure what a “coup” was. It’s a fitting summary for this clumsy lump of dumbness, which takes a complex geopolitical situation and reduces it to an exotic backdrop for yet another tale of white people in peril.

Owen Wilson does his well-honed everyman routine as Jack Dwyer, an engineer who’s moving to the other side of the world to start a new life with his attractive young family. (The film was shot in Chiang Mai and Lampang, but the name of the country is deliberately omitted — a mercy which the locals should probably be grateful for.)

No Escape (Kudeta)
Run Time 103 minutes
Language English

Unfortunately for the Dwyers, their arrival coincides with a brutal Khmer Rouge-style uprising, perpetrated by armed mobs that seem to be taking a special interest in butchering foreign tourists. This comes as a shock to the family, but not to the audience: We’ve already seen the country’s prime minister get bumped off in a lurid pre-credits sequence that robs the film of what little suspense it might have otherwise had.

Still, those first few scenes of Jack and his family almost work. There’s a bit of chemistry, a naturalness to the dialogue — they seem like nice people. The camerawork is shoddy enough that you could almost be watching their home movies.

Things are improved by the addition of Pierce Brosnan as Hammond, a wizened, wisecracking Brit with the aura of someone who’s spent a few too many years in go-go bars. Brosnan has enormous fun with the role, playing it like James Bond gone badly to seed, so it’s no surprise when the character is revealed to be a veteran intelligence operative. (“You British CIA or something?” asks Jack. “Something like that,” he replies.)

The film’s most effective moments come early on, when a mob attacks and starts slaughtering the occupants at the hotel where the Dwyers are staying. As Jack dashes to the pool to retrieve one of their daughters, his wife Annie (Lake Bell) barricades herself in their room, listening in horror as a guest in the adjacent room is murdered.

In its claustrophobia and sense of violation, the scene is grimly effective, redolent of home invasion films like Adam Wingard’s “You’re Next” (2011).

The director of “No Escape,” John Erick Dowdle (who also wrote the screenplay with his producer brother, Drew), is best known for horror movies, and he’s on surest ground when depicting inhuman behavior — typically perpetrated by an anonymous horde of sadists.

It’s Hammond who spells out the particulars of the film’s on-screen revolution, laying the blame at the feet of international corporations — including Jack’s employers — that invest in the region, knowing that the impoverished countries will never be able to repay the loans for all those expensive infrastructure projects. But that’s as far as “No Escape” goes in giving a voice to its revolutionaries.

The only Asian character with a significant speaking role is a pal of Hammond’s played by Sahajak Boonthanakit, whose character is named after country music star Kenny Rogers. It’s a cringe-inducing part, though considerably more flattering than the film’s depiction of Kenny’s countrymen. The film may dimly recall Roland Joffe’s “The Killing Fields,” but the support cast are the same assortment of savages and cannon fodder seen in “Rambo: First Blood Part II.”