Escape Room (2019) Starring Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell and Tyler Labine. Directed by Adam Robitel. Six strangers with haunted pasts are invited to a mysterious escape room event that proves deadly.
Mild spoilers follow.
At the outset, we see a young man frantically emerge through a wall and into a well-appointed room. At one end is an elaborate golden gate with numbered pegs that requires a four-digit code to enter. The walls begin to move as the chamber prepares to crush its human occupant.
He searches the walls and knick-knacks looking for clues to the code and finally makes some headway. As the oncoming wall crushes furniture to splinters, he enters the numerical sequence by moving certain pegs into position across the maze-like surface of the gate. It doesn’t seem to work, and the last we see is the screaming victim trapped as we fade to black.
Time to meet our contestants: there’s brilliant but shy college student Zoey (Taylor Russell), miserable grocery store stock boy Ben (Logan Miller) whom we recognize from the opening scene, good-natured truck driver Mike (Dale Vs Evil’s Tyler Labine), geeky escape room enthusiast Danny (Nik Dodani), competitive and headstrong stockbroker Jason (Jay Ellis), and scarred military veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll).
Each of them receives a small black puzzle box marked with the logo of Minos Escape Rooms, which eventually opens to reveal a date, time and the address of a skyscraper in downtown Chicago.
The group of contestants assemble at their destination 10 minutes into the film. After meeting an extremely sinister front desk clerk, the guests wind up in a posh waiting room on the third floor of the Minos building. When Ben tries to duck out and grab a smoke, he accidentally triggers a mechanism that turns the now locked waiting room into a giant oven.
Relying on Zoey’s scientific and literary genius, Danny’s experience with escape room mechanics and Jason’s alpha male leadership skills, the team devises a way to beat the increasingly deadly heat. The flames have a traumatizing effect on Amanda, and we flash back to her tour of duty in Afghanistan. During an explosive attack on her Humvee, which killed her fellow soldiers, Amanda was badly burned while escaping the decimated vehicle. In the oven room, she has a crippling panic attack and is saved by Zoey.
They eventually burst into my favorite challenge room, which is an old rustic cabin on a snowbound and frozen lake. There, they find a clue drawn from Ben’s past and several traps which prove lethal.
After all the fear of the burning hot oven room, this is where the contestants realize that someone is actually trying to kill them. We also learn about a defining event in hotshot Jason’s past, as the hotheaded stockbroker comes into conflict with his fellow players.
The narrow escape from the icy lake leads the surviving members into a bar. Not a big deal, right? Just your average tap-room, except that the whole thing is built upside down. Our heroes stand on the ceiling, looking up at the tables and the floor above. A pool table, with the scattered balls in mid-game, hangs over their heads.
I won’t spoil what happens here, but I did get sweaty palms. If you like terrifying heights, you’ll love it.
One of Escape Room’s two strengths is that it doesn’t dawdle on unnecessary preamble scenes or leave you waiting to get to the survival thrills. While it might not rewrite the book on mystery thrillers, the film has kinetic energy and a supercharged pace. It’s designed to entertain, not to intellectually stimulate, and immediately sets about achieving that end. The second positive is that the traps are well devised and visually appealing.
While the challenges and deadly chambers are engrossing and amusing, the ultimate solution to the mystery is a little too bland. It’s virtually the same antagonist reveal as in the 2002 indie thriller “My Little Eye,” and I was hoping for more of a spectacular denouement.
The natural questions going into something like this are: “Who is doing this and why?”
And while those queries are answered, it isn’t with any inventiveness or unpredictability. And that’s part of why I think the film moves so fast from one thing to the next. It doesn’t have much to say, but it can show you some slick booby traps and suspenseful escapes. This is a machine that is designed to be in motion, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just don’t stop and think too hard.
The trailers hinted that the pasts of each contestant were somehow connected, which is a bit dishonest. They do share a certain set of circumstances but don’t be like me and go in expecting some vengeful mastermind behind the scenes who has a grudge against this gang for past misdeeds they committed against him.
I was waiting for a shattering reveal moment like in the original “Saw,” where the bloody corpse in the room with Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell sits up and turns out to be mastermind John Kramer aka Jigsaw.
It never comes.
What we’re left with is something akin to the recent amusement park slasher film “Hellfest;” a solid genre entry that doesn’t break new ground, but delivers a diverting and sometimes thrilling experience just the same.