02/20/2013 07:35 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Movie Review: Inescapable

There are a number of people whose work I admire involved with Inescapable. So allow me to say some nice things about them before I talk about what is so wrong with this movie.

The film is written and directed by Ruba Nadda, a Canadian director of Middle Eastern extraction. Nadda made one of the most compellingly subtle (and little seen) romance dramas of 2009 in Cairo Time, a deliciously restrained tale of longing and temptation that starred the always compelling Patricia Clarkson.

That film also starred Alexander Siddig, the star of Inescapable, an intriguing actor whose work in Cairo Time (and in Syriana and other films) has shown a laser-like focus, but also a soulfulness that you don't often see in any movie actor. Either you have it or you don't -- and Siddig has it.

So it's a shame that both Siddig and Nadda have gone so wrong with Inescapable, in which Siddig plays a former Syrian secret police officer, returning to his homeland for the first time in decades. This is one of those movies that wants you to think it's more complex than it is, when it is actually too simple-minded for its own good.

Siddig plays Abid Abdel Kareem, now a computer operations manager for a bank in Toronto. He's a successful businessman, married with daughters in college or approaching college age. Then he gets the phone call every parent dreads: His daughter, who had been traveling in Israel, popped into Syria without telling him -- and now has disappeared.

(Well, OK, not necessarily the Syria part: Parents worry about something -- anything -- happening to their children when they're old enough to travel alone. The fact that it's Syria, home of a brutal regime in the best of times, is a bonus, meant to inspire chills with images of torture involving car batteries and alligator clips attached to sensitive body parts.)

Anyway, Abid hops a plane to the Middle East, then sneaks into Syria (because he lacks the proper visa). He's picked up at the border by Fatima (Marisa Tomei), who we quickly learn is Abid's former lover and with whom he has not been in contact since disappearing from Syria 20-plus years earlier.

He obviously understands how his dangerously visible behavior is likely to attract unwanted official attention (and just as obviously has no sense of who is who in this particularly treacherous landscape). Still, he begins trying to hunt down his daughter in a manner guaranteed to bring heat on himself. Eventually he discovers that his daughter may have been involved in an attempt to blackmail a high-ranking official (while searching for some hidden history about Abid himself).

Though the plot is complicated, it never really adds up to much. It seems to be a singularly clueless story, one that ignores the potential sources of tension and jeopardy that surround Abid. Yes, there are brief explanations of why Abid is able to stumble through this potentially booby-trapped environment without ever setting off any of the potential landmines, but that's unsatisfying, given the film's urge to imply threats around every corner.

As spy stories go, this one is surprisingly benign. Though it builds to a violent climax, the violence itself is laughable. Throughout the film, the action is so badly staged that there's not a single moment of physicality that doesn't look distressingly fake. You begin to wonder if this is a stylistic choice, until it becomes painfully evident that it's merely inept movie-making.

And that's the inescapable fact about Inescapable: It feels like a not-very-skillful attempt at making a certain kind of movie. Instead, the film repeatedly trips over its own shoelaces in ways that call attention to its distinct shortcomings in the story-telling department.

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