Escape RoomReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/07/19 13:44:12
For a movie opening in the early-January dumping ground, "Escape Room" is surprisingly competent. That is, obviously, a bit of damning with faint praise, especially since it's only a few months before people find it on streaming services and have no expectations based upon award-season and holiday cycles. They'll just see a thriller that chews up a hundred minutes without misstepping often enough to spoil anything.The concept is pretty straightforward: Six people in the Chicago area - bright but shy college student Zoey (Taylor Russell), rise-and-grind executive Jason (Jay Ellis), shaggy supermarket stockboy Ben (Logan Miller), army veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), gaming enthusiast Danny (Nik Dodani), and affable truck driver Mike (Tyler Labine) - get invitations to test out Minos Entertainment's newest escape room experience, though only Danny knows how the things work (clues, puzzles, themes). This one, they quickly discover, is potentially lethal. Not only that, but bits of it seem to be specifically designed to play upon their anxieties and experiences.
It's a basic high-concept thriller plot; few people in the audience for this haven't seen a movie where seemingly innocent games turn deadly (heck, it's almost a trend, with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Game Night both in theaters over the past year). There are lots of directions one can go with that, with director Adam Robitel and writers Bragi F. Schut & Maria Melnik opting for the most straightforward, running the group through a series of dangerous scenarios without a whole lot of subtext or complication to it. That's fine, for the most part - the production design team comes up with a lot of nice visuals for the deathtraps, and Robitel does pretty well showing the characters solving their problems visually with relatively minimal exposition. He and the writers don't try to add excess romantic subplots or too many twists (for the most part). It's a relief not seeing anything prioritized over survival.
Still, while the film isn't exactly lazy, it's got a few bad habits, enough that people who watch a lot of genre films might find their attention drifting. The opening flash-forward, for instance, is as bad an idea as it usually is, not offering nearly enough misdirection to make up for a lot of the film feeling like a foregone conclusion by the time it circles back around. This whole gambit has never really made sense, from Cube to The Game and beyond, if you give even a moment's thought to just how many potential accessories to murder are involved in a gambit like this and the resources involved (something which the film sort of doubles down on with an extended epilogue). You can make a pretty good guess at how long characters will last based upon the set-up they get at the start, and toward the end, a lot of things get hauled out as important that could have used a little more time to set them up. Even the twists are the standard ones; there's never an point where a viewer to say that this is a new take on familiar material.
It's got a fairly good group of potential victims, at least, with Taylor Russell's Zoey the standout; she blossoms from a pretty-but-shy nerd spouting jargon to a problem-solver and doesn't lose her core no matter how many directions the script pulls her. Deborah Ann Woll and Jay Ellis make Amanda and Jason more interesting to watch than they could be, while Tyler Labine (who seems like he was playing young slackers just a year or two ago; time does fly) is a reliable supporting guy who makes Mike counterpoint to the other more driven characters, something Logan Miller is a bit less entertaining at. Nik Dodani's Danny is kind of obnoxious, but in a believable way that doesn't take over the movie.The credibility of the premise frays a bit by the time "Escape Room" reaches its end, and it would be nice if the film had one moment that went off in a surprising direction. It's fine if you've seen most of what's playing theaters now, will be fine if it catches one's eye on a menu, and will be fine if someone involved hits it big and people are checking out their earlier work. Maybe that's not the highest bar to clear, but it's worth remembering that a lot of what studios traditionally put out in early January isn't up to that standard.
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