Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW: Action Packed Double Feature Weekend with

NO ESCAPE and UNSULLIED

 

August 27, 2015



I can’t remember the last time there was a weekend with two action films opening that had me this excited. The first, NO ESCAPE, solidifies what I first suspected back in 2001; that Owen Wilson does some of his best work when he goes “behind enemy lines”. The second, UNSULLIED, marks the directorial debut of former NFL star, Simeon Rice, and proves he is a winning force to be reckoned with both on and off the gridiron!

NO ESCAPE

Stepping out of their known comfort zone, with NO ESCAPE the Brothers Dowdle deliver a high octane, heart pounding thriller starring Owen Wilson, Lake Bell and Pierce Brosnan. Directed by John Erick Dowdle and co-written with brother Drew, the boys seamlessly move from horror to action as they populate the film with edge of your seat nail biting tension courtesy of some of the most dynamic performances you have seen to date from Wilson and Bell.

Set in an unnamed country somewhere in Southeast Asia, we meet Jack and Annie Dwyer and their two lovely little girls, Lucy and Beeze. Jack has just taken a job with a seemingly socially responsible company that designs clean water systems for “fourth world” countries (yay!) But then privatizes the water distribution system for profit. Along with the job, comes a relocation to Southeast Asia, putting the family at an uneasy disadvantage from the start. Thanks to the adorable Beeze though, during their flight over they meet a British ex-pat named Hammond, a frequent visitor to the country in search of women, wine and really bad karaoke, who gives them some tips on the lay of the land. Unbeknownst to the Dwyers and Hammond, however, while in mid-flight, a coup-de-tete has taken place on the ground and the country’s military ruler is assassinated by ruthless revolutionaries.

On arriving, the Dwyers are not met by the promised company liaison or car, which has Annie questioning the situation from the start. The family is saved by Hammond who introduces them to a local whom he knows well, Kenny Rogers, and provides transportation to their luxury hotel accommodations.

By morning, the Dwyers start to discover this isn’t the idyllic paradise represented in travel guides and Jack’s employment brochures. An angry mob assembles on the street below and then quickly takes over the control, executing all Westerners on sight. Seems they have a problem with Jack’s new employer and given welcome banners prominently displayed in the hotel lobby with Jack’s picture, they are gunning for Jack - literally and figuratively. And so the race for survival “behind enemy lines” is on with Jack trying to save not only himself, but his family.

And let’s just say, it doesn’t hurt that Hammond is along for the ride.

Owen Wilson soars. I saw this with his performance in 2001's “Behind Enemy Lines” as pilot Chris Burnett shot down in Serbian territory and racing through Eastern Europe trying to survive. Wilson brings that same energy and dynamic to the table here as Jack Dwyer but with the added layer of a protective parent and husband. His courage and love for family is palpable with every moment.

Joining Wilson is Lake Bell. We saw some great physicality and stunt work from her in “Black Rock”, something which I suggested she should do more of given her proficiency. Bell doesn’t disappoint and continues to prove herself worthy of that action mettle while truly embracing the demeanor of a maternal lioness protecting her cubs.

Wilson and Bell together are positively gripping as they invest us in these characters, in the family and in the survivalist and protective mode, while creating indelible individual characters that fuel one another.

And then there’s Brosnan. Pierce Brosnan. As I’m certain you have already ascertained, Hammond is not the buffoonish rapscallion he appears to be at first blush. Capitalizing on that, Brosnan is perfection as he makes Hammond a blend of Remington Steele/James Bond with a rakish touch of that as "The Matador". Simply divine.

Scene stealing are Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare as Lucy and Beeze, the latter of whom just melts your heart with every look, and who is actually based on the Dowdles younger sister of the same name.

Supporting characters representing the revolutionaries and cookie-cutter in nature and casting, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it allows our focus to hone in on the Dwyers and their specific adventure.

Directed by John Erick Dowdle and co-written with brother Drew, the script is tight and the action even tighter. Thanks to John’s eye and the work of cinematographer Leon Hinstin, intensity is ratcheted through the roof. Hand-held camera embeds the audience in the moment while several of the crane/helicopter rooftop shots create some real heart-stopping moments. Compounding the excellence of the action is the work of editor Elliott Greenberg who keeps the film moving at a clipped pace, matching the momentum of the action itself, beat for beat.

From a story standpoint, going beyond the family/fish out of water aspect, if you listen and pay attention to the story, the geo-economic and geopolitical subtext is timely, topical, powerful, and sadly, applicable to so many regions of today’s world, serving to buttress fears of Americans travelling to foreign soil.

No surprise here with Marco Beltrami scoring for heart pounding bombastic thrills.

NO ESCAPE is the adrenaline-fueled ride of the summer!

UNSULLIED

Moving from being in front of the lens on the gridiron to behind the lens as a director, Simeon Rice scores big with his “Must See” debut as writer/director with UNSULLIED. Filled with goal to goal winning immersive tension and action, UNSULLIED is visceral and visual in concept and execution. And let’s not overlook at breakout debut performance by Murray Gray.

Reagan is a track star. Living to run, her drive is fueled by the memory of her sister, also an athlete, who disappeared some years back. As if haunted by her sister’s ghost, Reagan runs like there’s no tomorrow. Felled by car trouble on a lonely backwoods road in Florida swamp country, for whatever reason, Reagan chooses this to be the moment to not run, and instead sits and waits for help to come.

After passing up help from an older scraggler in a paneled white van who gives off some rather skeevy vibes, Regan opts to accept help from a couple of friendly strangers, Noah and Mason, who offer a ride in their pick-up truck. (Obviously the fact that one of the pair, Noah, is hotter than an August night in Alabama, was part of the decision making process.) No sooner than Reagan gets in the pick-up than she is chloroformed, only to awaken gagged and bound in a shack. But she’s got company; a cute young waitress we saw Noah ogling at just a day or two before.

While our waitress seems to prefer whining and crying and to be the victim, Reagan doesn’t and manages to escape only to have Noah and Mason hot on her heels in a too-die-for nighttime game of cat and mouse through the muggy Florida wetlands. Racing through heavily wooded areas, as well as diving off “Hangman’s Cliff” into gator filled waters below, Reagan is running the race of her life.

As Reagan, Murray Gray make a more than impressive debut in this starring role. With a strong athletic background, which includes holding a black belt in a karate discipline, not to mention theatre training, it’s as if Regan was tailor-made for Gray. Displaying some fancy acting footwork, Gray makes Reagan more than a one-note thanks not only to her emotional grounding, but also due to the development of the character on the page by Rice and co-writer John Nodilo, as they provide backstory which is beautifully realized through flashback visuals at Reagan’s darkest moments.

Not too shabby is Rusty Joiner as Noah. Taking advantage off every opportunity to show off his very well-chiseled abs, is delicious as the evil Noah. Joiner brings a level of charm to Noah that provides resonance and believability for Reagan’s succumbing to “help” from a stranger. James Gaudioso walks the fine line of psychosis as the loose cannon Mason, serving as a terrific counter-weight to Joiner. Notable is a beautifully poignant and understated performance from Cindy Karr as localite Claudine Willfellow, an older woman who relies on these “nice boys” for help around her property and bringing business to town.

Written and directed by Rice and co-written by Nodilo, UNSULLIED boasts strong characters and high production values. Characters are fully fleshed out and well defined while some surprising plot twists keep the audience on its toes.

But the real strongsuit of UNSULLIED is Simeon Rice’s direction. Likening directing to coaching, it’s not a far stretch to believe Rice capable of directing a film. Seeing him execute it with this high degree of skill is something else! Calling on cinematographer Scott Winig, the visuals are rich and saturated, creating a heightened sense of reality that mirrors and fuels the adrenaline rush of Reagan’s story. Shooting night for night, the result dazzles with inky reflection while flashbacks are designed with softer, natural lighting that is warm to the touch.

Chase scenes are choreographed by Rice as if running the length of the football field, bobbing and weaving players right and left. By having Winig go hand held with cameras following Gray in the woods, the result is effectively dizzying and intense. Hand in hand with the work of Rice and Winig is that of editor Andrew Cohen who keenly cuts, designing rapier pacing to match the moves of Gray. And let’s hear it for the sound design! Pristine sensory experience. Shooting on location in the wooded suburbs of Tampa, complete with heat, humidity and bugs, only adds to the authenticity.

Icing on the cake is Jason Solowsky’s eclectic and subtle scoring.

As writer and director, Simeon Rice keeps his eye on the ball and scores a touchdown with UNSULLIED!

 

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