Escape Room (2019)
Rated PG-13 for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language
Score: 3 out of 5
Movies released at the start of January usually don't have the best reputation, especially not horror movies. One of the first reviews I ever wrote consisted of me going off on a tear against Texas Chainsaw 3D, a quintessential January movie that stands as the worst film in a franchise with a fairly checkered history. The year before that, The Devil Inside, 2012's big New Year's horror release, was so bad that it all but killed the found footage genre stone-dead, with only the Paranormal Activity franchise still trucking along for a couple more films. And in 2016, The Forest would give out a warning that Logan Paul, in his own New Year's debacle, would fail to heed: trying to brazenly exploit the Aokigahara "suicide forest" in Japan for cheap scares rarely ends well. So it was with some trepidation that I went into Escape Room, a movie that had a neat-looking trailer but whose release date looked more like a warning label than anything...
...and it's actually pretty good? Don't get me wrong, this movie goes flying off the rails in the last act as its plot takes turns for the unbelievable, and even before then, it squanders some of the character development it was setting up. But as far as cheap, middle-brow, turn-off-your-brain thrillers go, this one succeeds largely on the strength of its core setup and its ability to mine such for the sort of freaky set pieces that the trailer promised. This is not high art. It's a pretty stupid movie with a laughable ending. But it's the sort of laughter that had me going "hell yeah, I'd like to see more of that!" It's a movie that I suspect is going to have a long life on home video, a creative twist on the original Saw formula that kept me interested and invested from beginning to end.
The setup is simple: six people -- the college student Zoey, the stockboy Ben, the Iraq veteran Amanda, the truck driver Mike, the day trader Jason, and the geek Danny -- have been invited to a mysterious escape room in Chicago. Who they are is perfunctory; we learn over the course of the film that they all have tragic backstories, but with only one exception, these are used more to justify the clues and the twist ending than develop them as characters. While waiting to be called in, they soon find that the game has already begun, and that more importantly, it's the sort of game that the Jigsaw killer normally comes up with. The main appeal of this movie is watching all of the high-tech, room-sized death traps that these people find themselves thrust into, killing them off one by one as they scramble to uncover the clues to move on, clues that inevitably have some relation to their histories. And fortunately, this is where the most effort was put in. The clues to getting out of these locations, from a frozen lakefront cottage to a bar that's been turned upside down, are genuinely crafty, but not so obtuse that nobody could ever figure them out; I could see some of them being put in an actual escape room. (Minus the genuine danger, of course.) They're like the best traps out of the Saw movies, except with flashy effects instead of gore, and director Adam Robitel understands what makes them work, pulling the viewer in with the intricate setup, the explosive payoff, and all the meat in between as the characters look for hints while struggling to survive.
Unfortunately, what this film also has in common with the Saw movies is writing that gets so ridiculous that even the later sequels in that franchise would shake their heads and say "okay, that's a bit too far." In the third act, we find out who, or what, is responsible for the situation the characters find themselves in, with a twist that turns out to be among the most tired routes that the film could have possibly gone, and from there, the plot stacks on the contrivance until, by the end, I was staring in disbelief as to how powerful the villains were set up to be. The final shot literally had me laughing, and to be perfectly honest, I was completely fine with that. This is a movie that had been running on craziness since it started, so for it to end the way it did honestly almost enhanced the carnival rollercoaster experience of it all, even if it came at the expense of making any damn sense. The acting was a mixed bag, but generally leaned towards being good, with Deborah Ann Woll and Tyler Labine being the (sadly underused) standouts as Amanda and Mike. Labine makes Mike into the sort of likable, good-natured guy who's always a breath of fresh air in movies like this, while Woll steals the spotlight with some great physical moments, as befitting a character who's supposed to be a veteran; she'd honestly make a damn good action hero. I also liked Taylor Russell as Zoey, and her transformation from a shy bookworm into the one who's seemingly cracking under the pressure but who turns out to be the only one who's talking any sense, especially with a great one-liner towards the end. The only one who didn't click with me was Jay Ellis as Jason, with his growing villainy over the course of the film coming more from the writing and the twist involving his character than his performance. The script painted him as a cold-blooded social Darwinist, but I never got that from Ellis' performance; he came across as a rich jerk, but one who still wanted everybody to get out alive, not somebody like (pardon the obvious, too-easy reference) Ellis from Die Hard who would happily turn on the rest of the group to ensure his own survival.
The Bottom Line
Your enjoyment of this movie will depend on your tolerance for logic-breaking third-act plot twists, but if you can get past the ending, you'll find a well-shot, neat little thriller with some cool ideas and set pieces. Check it out.