Review: Inescapable (2012)

I missed this Canadian-made, Syrian-set thriller at TIFF last fall, so I was happy to find it on demand the other night. Unfortunately, writer-director Ruba Nadda (whose beautiful romantic drama Cairo Time [2009] is proof that a love story can be more about restraint than abandon) has crafted a thriller that is largely inadequate, despite her worthy aims.

Nadda once again uses Alexander Siddig (best known as Dr. Julian Bashir from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as her leading man. Alongside Patricia Clarkson, his smoldering eyes and quiet charisma helped make Nadda’s Cairo Time a success, but he’s usually relegated to playing supporting-role Middle Eastern-types. It’s nice to see him as the protagonist, Adib Abdel Kareem, a computer operations manager for a Toronto bank who has been living in Canada since he left Syria for mysterious reasons 20 years ago. When his daughter goes missing while visiting Damascus, he decides to return to Syria in order to find her. Marisa Tomei shows up as a Syrian woman who has a history with Adib (her casting isn’t as awkward as you might expect), Joshua Jackson as a Canadian diplomat (a no-brainer), and Oded Fehr (the cool Medjai character from The Mummy movies) as a Syrian military officer, again with ties to Adib.

This film's obvious comparison is to the Liam Neeson vehicle, Taken (2008), in which an ex-CIA operative races across Europe hunting down his daughter’s captors. However, although the stories resemble each other, the films are different in style as well as kind. Taken is essentially a vigilante movie, a revenge story. It has the trappings of a Euro-thriller, but the dark secrets uncovered are less important to the film than the thrill of vengeance. Like all vigilante movies, it takes its time setting up the hero’s idyllic life before it is shattered, so that we licence his ensuing violent rampage.

In contrast, the setup and resolution of Inescapable are trimmed almost to the scalp (it’s fitting the film opens with Adib trimming his beard). Initial character development is minimal and chiefly visual. We are never introduced to the daughter, except through photographs and a video. Almost right away, her boyfriend barges in and tells Adib at work that his daughter has gone missing. Although I was shocked by the sudden intrusion of the precipitating event, I soon understood why it came so early: this thriller is just as much about uncovering the character of Adib as it is about discovering what happened to his daughter in Damascus.

The leanness of the film is refreshing, but the execution doesn’t quite work. This trim thriller proves ungainly; the two-pronged narrative requires more balance and proficiency than Nadda ultimately manages. If aspects of Adib are revealed subtly, the twists and turns in the search for his daughter occur inelegantly. Apart from the thrill, for a Canadian, of seeing a Canadian bust out of the Canadian embassy and take down some guys like a badass (probably a cinematic first, my wife remarked), most of the intended action thrills fall flat, the arrangements uncoordinated, the music blundering. It would seem Nadda’s talents lie more with acting than action.

Lastly, for all the promise of the Syrian setting, Inescapable reproduces a fairly generic version of the Middle East, with the usual chases through markets and narrow streets. Apparently, the film was shot in South Africa, and you can tell that the camera is shy to look around. This means that Damascus never becomes a vivid setting, a character, as Cairo did in Nadda’s earlier film. Sadly, a more accurate, more expansive thriller actually shot in Syria seems impossible anytime soon.

5 out of 10

Inescapable (Canada/South Africa), 2012

Written and directed by Ruba Nadda; starring Alexander Siddig, Marisa Tomei, Joshua Jackson, and Oded Fehr.