Provoking visceral thrills and moral unease in equal measure, action movie No Escape puts us in the shoes of a desperately imperilled American family caught in the middle of a violent coup in an unnamed Southeast Asian country.

Owen Wilson’s blithe, oblivious Texan engineer, Jack Dwyer, has uprooted his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and young daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare) to take up an overseas post with a water company, but the family has barely checked into its hotel when rebels overthrow the government and begin killing all foreigners.

Right from the moment Jack finds himself caught in the middle of a harrowing street battle between riot police and insurgents, writer-director John Erick Dowdle – previously best known for horror films such as Quarantine and As Above, So Below – gives the Dwyers’ plight a terrifying immediacy.

When Jack manages to rejoin his family at the luxury hotel, their predicament turns out to be even direr, and as they struggle to elude the invading mob, the tension is ramped up to an almost unbearable level, climaxing with a heart-clutching escape from the hotel rooftop.

Despite bursts of sweaty-palmed suspense in its second half, No Escape doesn’t manage to sustain this degree of excitement, but Wilson and Lake – both acting outside their usual comic comfort zones – are always so believable and real that we continue to root for their characters even when the narrative lurches slightly off course.

Less successful is Pierce Brosnan, who plays the enigmatically shady expat the family encounters, and the Bond echoes he brings are among the film’s wrong notes. His character, however, does spell out what is elsewhere only hinted at in the story – that Western interference and corporate greed have fomented the violence.

No Escape doesn’t linger on the insurgents’ motives; it would be a very different film if it did. The Dwyers’ point of view is very much a myopic Western-eye view of local events, but it is the film’s narrow focus on the panicky, bewildered Americans that makes it so breathtakingly gripping.

Certificate 15. Runtime 103 mins. Director John Erick Dowdle.