Again and again, No Escape shows that this is not how the clueless American planned for things to "work out", that he's a victim.
"I wasn't planning for things to work out like this." Of course he wasn't. Jack (Owen Wilson) is doing his best to explain to his wife Annie (Lake Bell) just how they've ended up in an exotic, impoverished "Third World" country and she's ended up in tears on the floor of their hotel room. As Jack talks, Annie cuts in, "I can't comfort you right now."
In this moment, early in No Escape, Jack and Annie can't quite come to terms with each other's needs and disappointments. He's an engineer feeling stuck with his new mid-management job, working for a global corporation looking to privatize water. She's a mother of two young girls, Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare), anxious for their safety in a place in "Asia", as Jack puts it, where the electricity is iffy and the men are sweaty, and they're far from their Austin, Texas home.
Lucky for both of them, they're about to run smack into chaos, a violent coup. Jack comes upon the insurrection when he heads out into the street in search of an English language newspaper. Alarmed by the confrontations between angry protestors wielding stones and machetes against a line of soldiers whose riot shields offer little protection, Jack scampers back to the hotel, the camera following him through narrow alleys and past bloody victims.
To indicate the doubled sensation of time both slowing and racing, the film initiates a trick it repeats more than a few times: slow motion, fragmented images and muffled sound create the sensation that you're back on the beach in Saving Private Ryan, unsure what's just out of frame, but aware that it's bad.
These sequences tend to indicate Jack's experience. He's remarkably cagy at times, peering through smoke or shards of office furniture to spot the one possible escape route in any given crisis, carrying a daughter over his shoulder or tossing them one by one from one building roof to another (again, broken slow motion suggests his worry, as you watch the child fly through the air from a view approximating his).
He's helped in this by Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), who's easy enough to spot as a hardened government-military operative type, but who intimates to Jack that he's just a hard-drinking, karaoke-singing white guy in town in pursuit of "the girls". He's good at showing up during especially dire situations, leading the frightened family through scary streets and shooting with remarkably sharp aim at all assailants.
Besides rescuing the family and providing access to the semi-comic stylings of his sidekick, a local-seeming sure-shot agent who goes by the name of "Kenny Rogers" (Sahajak Boonthanakit), Hammond provides a bit of explanation for Jack, as stubbornly clueless a hero as you can imagine. Hammond doesn't so much correct his myopia ("I have to save my family!") as he provides something like background: "Guys like me pave the way for guys like you," he says, echoing, among other things, Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. When infrastructures are decimated and populations suffer, corporations arrive on scene to rebuild and reap profits. "It's all a fuck job," Hammond observes. The protestors, the guys with masks on their faces and machetes, "are just trying to protect their families, just like you."
It's no surprise that Jack doesn't quite grasp the concept, worried as he is about his own moral standing ("I killed someone") and only sort of placated by Hammond's instruction, which sounds a lot like his own narrow, self-sustaining view of the world: "There's no good or bad here. Just get your family the hell out."
Yes, this would be the idea that drives any action movie set in a dangerous place. Make that a bad place. Despite Hammond's brief acknowledgment of responsibility and complicated ethical and political contexts, No Escape subjects Jack and family to all manner of abuse and terror, ensuring that you want them to escape and even to win. When, for instance, he does kill that someone, the scene is shot not to show the victim, but instead, to emphasize his reaction and also Annie's. She watches from across a room as he smashes and trashes, blood splattering all over his face. She's sad and upset, but you know she knows her husband must cross this line in order to save her and the girls, to get them the hell out.
Again and again, No Escape shows that this is not how Jack planned for things to "work out", that he's a victim. It's a familiar position for Americans abroad in the movies, whether they find themselves in war zones or backwoods or hostels. The victims are sympathetic, hapless before they're cunning, while the killers have scars on their faces and chainsaws or machetes, they're monsters.
It happens that the monsters here are "Asian", their plights and fears and reactions unspoken. The only English the chief villain does manage is to identify Jack, to call out that he means to capture and kill him as a representative of his employer. Each time you hear this threat, it cuts through the background noise, sirens and gunshots and screams, setting you -- again -- inside Jack's experience. And so you too want to get the hell out.