‘No Escape’
John Erick Dowdle
Stars: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The white knuckle thriller “No Escape” pulls off an impressive feat: it’s a xenophobic film about xenophobia. The ones in peril are an American family, headed by Owen Wilson and Lake Bell, who arrive in a never-identified Asian country right as a bloody coup breaks out. Armed psychos fill the city streets, taking a special predilection towards foreigners. But even before fellow Americans are being shot in the head — not before shouting things like “I’m an American!” — the film is painting even the non-violent locals as subhuman Others. An early scene finds Wilson’s Jack, new in town to work for a water company, strolling through a market, eyeing the residents with suspicion, flustered to find no one speaks the language of a country on the other side of the world. Every Asian character is filmed like an ominous grotesque — that is, save the chirpy man that greets them wearing a cowboy hat and proclaiming the greatness of the U.S. of A.

Amazingly, every now and then it’s possible to forget “No Escape”’s retrograde politics and get caught up in what is, at base, a survive-the-night thrill ride, and one that could possibly — though almost certainly not — turn out grim. Director John Erick Dowdle cut his teeth on found footage horrors “Quarantine” and “As Above, So Below,” and he knows how to convey the feeling of being lost and vulnerable in the midst of unspeakable terror. His cameras dart around, just barely catching stray bits of mayhem our heroes would rather never see. When night falls the images turn murky and claustrophobic, the cameras getting uncomfortably close as Jack, Bell’s Annie and their two young daughters try to find makeshift hiding spots or, at one point, disguise themselves so no one can see they’re Caucasian.

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OK, so “No Escape” is still always inherently xenophobic — a winger’s nightmare that offers the message that no place is safe for an American, and certainly not a country so far off. (The film was shot in Thailand, but it eventually seems it’s probably Cambodia.) Still, Wilson and Bell are ideal outside-the-box action leads — hypothetically. Both tend to be thought of as comedic actors, but if “No Escape” never gives them the slightest chance to be funny they at least have personality. Or that’s the idea. In practice they only get a minute or two to show off their relaxed, flirty banter before they’re reduced to anonymous freak-out machines. They at least prove winningly sloppy (though usually quite lucky) when it comes to action. If their characters have any humanity beyond people in peril it’s less because of Wilson and Bell’s work than the viewer remembering their turns in other, superior movies.

At times “No Escape” aims to be a lean, cut-to-the-bone horrorshow. But the writing is sloppy. One of Jack and Annie’s daughters can always be counted on to be either in the wrong place or prove a neurotic pill at the wrong time. Every now and then Pierce Brosnan, as a strip joint ex-pat who’s of course ex-Special Forces, swings by, and right when the heroes need him. The screenplay, by Dowdle and his brother Drew, barely even tries to mask that he’s a mere plot device, there to save things when they hit a narrative wall.

Eventually the Dowdles hit on something deeper and more troubling, with Jack forced to kill to ensure his family’s safety. Ideally the film’s remainder should explore having to live with murder, even one that could be somewhat, sort of, kind of (but not really) justified. But it’s quickly forgotten, just as how the film can’t be bothered to turn the Asian characters into anything but swarms of murderers and one or two token goodies. (Whatever the case, no one is subtitled, and therefore unknowable.) Late in Brosnan’s character launches into a speech about how the real root of the coup stems from globalization and how American industriousness has no interest in how their affairs affect locals. Then it’s right back to scary Asians hunting down lily-white Yanks. The ending, however, which we won’t reveal, is hilarious, and it would be scathingly satirical too if the film had an iota of self-awareness. Which it does not.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge