This mean and vigorous men's adventure pulp throwback has everything going against it. It's a late-August release whose leads, Owen Wilson and Lake Bell, tend to be the best things in movies you otherwise regret seeing. The trailers, teasing the story of a toothsome American family hunted by peasant-rebels in a foreign revolution, suggest Hotel Rwanda: The Ride. Everything about it looks wrong-century and wrong-headed: By what moral calculus does it make sense, in the midst of an Asian genocide, to worry over one Western family rather than the fates of millions?
Those demerits mostly hold true in the film itself. But there's good news, too. No Escape is often uncommonly suspenseful. And by pitting its white leads against the citizen hordes of Southeast Asia, No Escape is also uncommonly honest about the fears and assumptions that fuel adventure fiction -- here, the Other is not abstracted away into orcs or aliens.
Director John Erick Dowdle is going for clutch-your-throat terror rather than action-flick jollies, and he excels at claustrophobic fear. It's hard to shake the scene of Bell pressed against a door to hold back the marauders without tipping them off that the room is occupied, all while an elementary-aged daughter observes in shocked silence. Dowdle devotes welcome care to the practicalities — the tears, the potty breaks — of domestic life on the run. He misses no opportunity to jolt us, but also pulls off scenes of heartening delicacy. As Bell and Wilson's characters comfort the kids, with dad jokes and telling hand-squeezes, I found myself wishing these actors might one day topline some movie together that's not mostly about trying not to get beheaded.