Owen Wilson, action hero?
Well, yes, kind of.
In “No Escape,” an unexpectedly gripping, gut-rustling thriller opening in theaters Wednesday, Wilson plays a Texas techie, a water-purification engineer, who moves his wife and girls to an unnamed Southeast Asian country.
Before the family can even unpack, the prime minister is assassinated, a coup erupts, and Westerners — most of them holed up in the capital’s lone luxury hotel — become targets for the bandana-wrapped, machete-wielding, gun-toting rebels.
And the star of “Wedding Crashers” has to save the day — or, at the very least, his wife and daughters.
“I wasn’t intentionally looking for something different,” says Wilson, whose filmography is rife with dopey coms (“Hall Pass,” “Drillbit Taylor”), rommy coms (“How Do You Know?”; “You, Me, and Dupree”), hit franchise coms (“Meet the Parents,” “Night at the Museum”), and just about every Wes Anderson auteur com.
But then the “No Escape” screenplay from brothers Drew and John Erick Dowdle — originally titled “The Coup” — arrived. Not any kind of com, not at all.
“I read the story, and I could imagine myself doing it,” Wilson explains on the phone the other day from Malibu. “The character is not being asked to do stuff that’s too unbelievable. It was all, ‘OK, I can see that.’ He’s not suddenly operating a grenade launcher. … And I’m not all of a sudden changing into The Rock.”
“I just have to look in the mirror and accept that I am not The Rock.”
Nonetheless, like Dwayne Johnson risking life and chiseled limb to rescue his daughter and wife in “San Andreas,” Wilson has to fend off rioting hordes, dodge automatic weapons fire, and fall in with a couple of shady special ops types, all to keep his loved ones out of harm’s way.
Joining him on the “No Escape” obstacle course are Lake Bell as his not-happy-to-be-there spouse, and Pierce Brosnan, with a cocky attitude and a Cockney accent, as a seasoned traveler who has his own agenda in the imploding land. When things get hairy, the former 007 shows up to lend Wilson’s Jack Dwyer and girls a hand.
“There’s a lot of worry that goes into being a parent,” says Wilson, 46. “And this movie just puts all that stuff on steroids.”
Like the scene where he has to literally hurl his kids — ably played by Claire Geare and Sterling Jerins — from a hotel roof to a building across the street while they’re being shot at. If they don’t make it, they plummet to their deaths.
“Even if you don’t have kids” — Wilson has two — “there’s a strong human instinct to protect children,” he goes on. “I know Claire and Sterling are actresses playing my daughters, but, still, you get ready to do the scenes and you look at their faces and see how young they are and how vulnerable they seem, and it’s easy to get worked up. … And also, they’re not just being asked to sit there and be cute, like Disney kids.”
In the same way, says Wilson, shooting on location in the bustling northern Thai metropolis of Chiang Mai, with its steaming weather and teeming street markets, provided another level of verisimilitude.
“It’s one less thing that you’ve got to act, because it really is sweltering and strange. … And walking around through the markets, it’s just crazy — you’re not walking through Whole Foods, that’s for sure.
“I can’t imagine us having tried to film this in, say, Vancouver or Atlanta. … Chiang Mai becomes a character in the movie. Its foreignness is central.”
Wilson, who played former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and author John Grogan in the 2008 adaptation of Grogan’s best-selling “Marley & Me” and who starred in 2011’s “Midnight in Paris,” only the biggest grosser of Woody Allen’s career, says he’s happy with how his career is turning out. He doesn’t have to worry where the next job is coming from, or even if there is a next job.
On the other hand, after the crash-landing of “Bottle Rocket,” Wilson’s 1996 acting debut (co written with his University of Texas buddy Anderson, who directed), a future in motion pictures wasn’t a sure thing.
“I’ve been working now for 20 years,” the actor says. “You see policemen and people in the Army retiring when they get their 20 years. So it’s like, OK, I’ve done all right.”
What? Is Wilson, who has the Peter Bogdanovich ensemble comedy “She’s Funny That Way” just out in theaters and on VOD and “Zoolander 2” coming in February, actually thinking of hanging it all up?
“No, no,” he says, laughing. “I’m just saying if it was forced on me, if people did stop calling and I couldn’t get hired, that I could still say, ‘Well, at least I had my 20 years.'”