In Hollywood, white people are heroes. By a glibly inevitable logic, that means that way too often non-white people are villains. And so, in films spanning many decades, suspense, terror, excitement, and danger are generated by the spectacle of one or two white faces confronting a sea of inscrutable, dark-skinned malevolence. In Live and Let Die (1973) and The Temple of Doom (1984), the religious rituals of non-white people are centered on murder. In Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and Birth of a Nation (1915), the American homeland must be rescued from swarms of fiendish swarthy interlopers. In every case, the good guys are distinguished from the bad by the color of their skin.
No Escape, landing in US theaters on Aug. 26, is the latest addition to this not especially illustrious tradition of Anglo protagonists. The plot, such as it is, centers on the travails of Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), a Texan who has started a new job as a hydro-engineer in a Southeast Asian country so ominous and debased that it is never even named (though the footage was shot in Thailand). Almost as soon as he steps off the plane, however, Jack, his wife Annie (Lake Bell, who deserves better than this), and their two daughters are embroiled in the fallout from a coup d’état.
The coup is linked to Wilson’s job, and to Western companies’ takeover of the nation’s water supply. Or something like that. The exact details are murky, which conveniently makes the citizens’ motivation seem all the more incomprehensible. In, say, Ant-Man or Rogue Nation, the (white) villains have a face and a personality. They’re bad people, but they’re people. In No Escape, though, the enemy is nothing more than a faceless horde; it’s more like a zombie movie than an action flick. The one non-white character who registers as an individual is the friendly cab driver, Kenny Roger (Sahajak Boonthanakit)—and as his name suggests, he’s defined by his passion for an American country-pop performer. He’s only an individual insofar as he identifies himself with whiteness.
The film makes a lukewarm attempt to recognize that non-white people have own personalities, families, and souls. Some Southeast Asians offer assistance and/or sacrifice themselves to save Dwyer and his family. More directly, Pierce Brosnan, playing a British intelligence agent named Hammond, delivers a self-castigating speech about how he, and those like him, have precipitated this descent into chaos. The West offers loans that it knows third-world countries can’t pay back, he explains, and then swoops in to take over their infrastructure and resources. The people in this anonymous nation are fighting against “slavery,” Hammond says. They’re just trying to protect their families, the same way Jack is.
It’s a nice sentiment—but, unfortunately, the film doesn’t believe it for a second. There is no real effort to show that the revolutionaries are defending their families, or the ways in which they’re fighting against a vastly more powerful imperial occupier. Instead, the white people are presented as the underdogs. The American embassy is overrun with ease; there is no sign of American military aid. In Hollywood, it’s the people of color who can’t escape. Wherever they go, they’re just cannon fodder for some white guy’s adventure.
More, the film stages scene in which white people are gunned down from helicopters flying above, neatly reversing the actual dynamics of American air superiority in virtually all modern conflicts. This isn’t unique to No Escape; there are similar scenes in Olympus Has Fallen and The Avengers, among many others. Hollywood loves this nightmare vision—in part perhaps because it justifies our own violence.
Loathe to stoop to nuance (why start now?), Brosnan makes that justification explicit in No Escape. He explains that America, and Jack in particular, are complicit in imperial shenanigans. But he then goes on to say Jack must do whatever it takes to protect his family, up to and including murder. The whole film seems to lead up to Jack— and by extension America—justifying hyperbolic violence. The non-white zombie horde is coming; it cannot be reasoned with. The powerless American heroes have no choice but to kill and kill and kill if they are to survive.
Of course (spoiler alert!) Jack’s family does survive. Jack’s daughters mug cutely at the end, and Owen Wilson mugs cutely right back. Never mind that scads of non-white people were executed in disgusting and humiliating ways, or that an entire country has been left a smoking ruin due in part, it seems, to that most benevolent of forces—American intervention. In Hollywood, it’s the people of color who can’t escape. Wherever they go, they’re just cannon fodder for some white guy’s adventure. Their country doesn’t even get a name.