Culture | Popcorn movie needs a little butter

Inescapable struggles to escape mediocrity

In the taxonomy of action heroes, Adib Abdul Kareem, played by Alexander Siddig, is more akin to an updated Hitchcockian everyman than the nigh invincible badasses of the eighties and nineties. There’s a chase scene that lasts about one city block, and ends with our hero’s ungraceful, clearly painful collision with a slow-moving car. His wounds carry over from scene to scene. He winces in pain. He looks like hell.

A former Syrian intelligence operative, Adib, has left his unsavory past behind for a quiet family life in Toronto. But when his daughter Muna disappears on an unexpected jaunt to Damascus, it takes about the space of a scene change for Adib to book a flight, start opening old boxes full of old passports and photos, and make phone calls he probably doesn’t want to. There to grease his way through Syrian customs and into various government institutions is Fatima (Marisa Tomei, in femme fatale mode if we’re to judge by the eye makeup), an old flame that’s kept burning while he was away.

While it’s refreshing to see a less-than-superhuman action hero, it’s hard not to realize a certain overly pat thread weaving through the plot:  the action doesn’t actually kick in until about two thirds of the way through the movie, so before that, we have a sort of modern Middle Eastern noir. Albeit with the clues outlined in fluorescent chalk – a plain blue headscarf found in Muna’s hotel room leads directly to a vendor with whom she’d struck up a reasonably confessional friendship. Adib picks one photo of his daughter out of hundreds on a restaurant wall in record time.

The more obvious bits of the film wouldn’t matter as much if Inescapable were intended to be fun or campy, but that’s obviously not the goal here. It doesn’t have enough emotional oomph to function as a morality tale, and the plot isn’t quite taut or twisty enough to do any justice to the tradition of corrupt-government thrillers. The movie seems to be at its best when operating as an acidic love letter to Damascus. Though it wasn’t shot on location, director Ruba Nadda has found a way to capture a bit of authentic-feeling life and bustle during street scenes, as well as a palatable undercurrent of paranoia fitting for a place with about a dozen secret police organizations.

The movie seems to draw its principal line between bureaucratic obstruction and honest individual struggle, preferably outside of the corrupt system. Nothing ever gets done within: Adib might never have gotten into the country without Fatima’s outside contacts. Paul Ridge of the Canadian embassy (Joshua Jackson) isn’t any good to the mission until he takes off the suit and starts trawling the streets alongside our intrepid hero. Adib’s old friend Sayid (Israeli actor Oded Fehr, who you’ll half recognize from a supporting role in one action movie or another) is almost immediately recognizable as untrustworthy, as we first meet him in military dress, working as a government desk jockey. Our hero, on the other hand, politely-but-firmly bucks authority. He never lies, never misleads anyone, and only asks for the truth with the firm, sure demeanour of someone with justice on his side, keeping bad cop tactics as an absolute last resort. This is a universe where being the good guy is a decision. Maybe not an easy or safe choice, but certainly a clear one. Siddig doesn’t do much to give us a look at Adib’s inner life. Though the camera seems to adore close-ups of Adib’s handsomely haggard mug, we never get to see what goes on behind it.


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