“No Escape” (R) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
There’s no escaping the intensity of “No Escape,” a taut action thriller directed and produced, respectively, by Minnesota brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle. Known predominantly for their horror films “Quarantine,” “Devil” and “As Above, So Below,” the Dowdles – who also co-wrote the film – effectively create real-life terror as it follows an American family being hunted during a coup in Southeast Asia.
Owen Wilson stars as Jack Dwyer, a struggling U.S. businessman forced to relocate with his wife (Lake Bell) and young daughters (Claire Geare and Sterling Jerins) to work on a project in an unnamed third world country. Less than a day after they arrive, the prime minister of the country is assassinated and the family is suddenly caught in the middle of a bloody, violent coup, where the insurgents want all foreign visitors – particularly Americans – dead.
With only the aid of a mysterious British citizen (Pierce Brosnan) and his friend (Sahajak Boonthanakit) to depend on, Jack and his family find themselves on the run from a large group of rebels, who are out for blood when it is discovered that the company Jack works for is trying to privatize the country’s water supply.
Like most action thrillers, “No Escape” no doubt has its share of outrageous action moments and instances of characters conveniently being in the right place at the right time. But elevating “No Escape” above other films in the genre is a smart script that weaves in narratives that mirror such earth-shattering events like the Fall of Saigon, the desecration of U.S. soldiers at Mogadishu, and the raid on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi (a particularly prophetic scene, since the Dowdles conceived the film seven years ago). In the middle of it all is a vulnerable family with no particular set of skills, a la Liam Neeson, which makes the frightening scenarios all the more relatable for the film’s audiences.
Perhaps the smartest move, though, was a role reversal of sorts, which found Wilson in more of a dramatic part and Brosnan delivering the comic relief. It’s particularly jarring to see Wilson’s character resort to doing some very bad things in order to protect his family, and showing much more range from the actor than we’ve ever seen before. In film world filled with so many cookie cutter action thrillers, it’s refreshing to see a pair of filmmakers like the Dowdles reconfigure the mold.
“We Are Your Friends” (R) 1 1/2 stars (out of four)
An aimless plot keeps spinning ’round and ’round in “We Are Your Friends,” a hapless millennial drama about an aspiring club DJ (Zac Efron) who wants to escape his humble confines in California’s San Fernando Valley, and find fame and fortune in Los Angeles, and eventually, the world. A movie tailor-made for the teen/twentysomething demographic, the film is about as one note as the singular, monotonous Euro beat that drives its soundtrack. It’s an hour-and-a-half of hipster hell.
Considering they all hail from Minnesota, there’s no escaping the comparisons of filmmaking brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle to Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
The distinct similarities hardly bother the Twin Cities born-and-bred siblings, though. In fact, they fully embrace it. After all, it’s hard not to think of the Coens when you consider that the brothers both write their scripts, while John Dowdle, 41, directs and Drew Dowdle, two years younger, produces. And like their Minnesota filmmaking inspirations, the Dowdles’ combined vision works wonders with their latest film, the compelling, pulse-pounding action thriller “No Escape.”
“The (Coen brothers-like) set-up was definitely by design,” John Dowdle told me, laughing, in an interview Tuesday, alongside his brother. “When I was in college, I read an article about th
e Coen brothers, which talked about how Joel went to NYU and studied film, and Ethan went to Princeton and studied literature and business, and then the two joined up to make films that Joel directs and Ethan produces. It helped them keep control of what they were doing and keep their voice more singular. Once we saw that article, we went, ‘OK, here’s the blueprint. Here’s how we’re going to do this.”
“The article talked so much about the autonomy that they were able to create for themselves by way of doing everything,” Drew Dowdle added. “That really appealed to us and we definitely took a page out their playbook. We always wanted to work for ourselves and have our own business, but Hollywood seemed to be the kind of place where that would be a hard thing to create.”
Despite the odds against them, the Dowdle brothers, like the Coens before them, are bucking the Hollywood system. To date, their combined independent voices have churned out such hit horror thrillers as “Devil,” “Quarantine” and “As Above, So Below,” and top-level talent is definitely taking notice. In fact, their new film, the independently-produced action thriller “No Escape,” attracted the likes of Owen Wilson, Pierce Brosnan and Lake Bell in the principle roles.
Opening in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, “No Escape” captures the real-life terror that envelops businessman Jack Dwyer (Wilson), his wife (Bell) and his two young daughters (Claire Geare and Sterling Jerins) after they relocate from the U.S. to a Southeast Asian country for Jack’s work. Not long after they settle into their hotel, the family becomes a target in a violent, bloody coup, where insurgents fearful of a U.S. corporation’s plans to privatize the country’s water supply ruthlessly execute Americans and other foreigners at will.
With only a mysterious British citizen (Brosnan) and his friend (Sahajak Boonthanakit) to aid them, the family faces a harrowing day and night of terror as they seek a way to survive the uprising and find possible path to freedom.
While “No Escape” takes a corrupt, American company to task, the Dowdles want viewers to know that “No Escape” is definitely not anti-American. True, bad American and British corporations create the problem, and bad foreigners respond with brute force. In the middle, though, is a good American family trying to survive through it.
“We wanted to make sure this wasn’t a ‘rah-rah’ jingoistic movie where all the Americans were good and the foreign characters were all bad — there’s a much more gray area here,” Drew Dowdle said. “But we do believe a lot of things happen in foreign countries where there’s a lot of blowback due to foreign policies via the private sector when it comes to massive infrastructure investments that are set up to fail in a way. They’re set up to default. That’s something that’s very real and we liked that element. We wanted some of the causality to be pointed back toward the Western world. That detail was very important to us.”
The interesting thing about “No Escape” is that it takes place in a country that isn’t identified. The brothers filmed “No Escape” in Thailand, which allowed for a Southeast Asian setting that is reminiscent of Cambodia.
“Initially we had written the city where the film took place as Cambodia, where there was the Khmer Rouge Uprising (from 1975-79),” John Dowdle said. “But after reading the script, people kept asking us, ‘Could this happen in Cambodia again? Is Khmer Rouge still around?’ Yes, Khmer Rouge is still around. The location of the story became so much a part of the conversation that we stepped back and said, ‘How do we focus the story more on family? How do we make it more allegorical?'”
By making the story more allegorical, the brothers were able to infuse ideas that harkened such horrifying historical events as the Fall of Saigon, the scene of American soldiers’ bodies being desecrated on the streets of Mogadishu (“That was actually me — the bloodied body being pulled behind the Jeep,” Drew Dowdle revealed) and the terrorist attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi.
The eerie coincidence is, the idea that chronicles the Benghazi-like slaughter was conceived long before the actual incident happened.
“When we first wrote this seven years ago, people said, could this really happen? Now nobody questions that,” John Dowdle said. “This is absolutely possible. This happens all over the place and it could take place in any number of countries.”
Film fans will notice a distinct difference in Wilson’s and Brosnan’s characterizations, in that Wilson, normally the funnyman, is playing a serious role, and Brosnan, the action-turned-drama star, gets the most laughs amid the chaos. The Dowdles like the approach, however, that real life has its share of funny and serious moments, and it shouldn’t matter who when representing real life in their films is delivering the lines.
“We like to joke that we cast Owen in Pierce’s role and Pierce in Owen’s role, but we like to make things feel more real by casting people in interesting and different ways,” John Dowdle said.
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers