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Room for improvement - ‘Escape Room’

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It’s no secret that January has long served as a bit of a dumping ground for Hollywood. Yes, this is the time when many award-contending films go into wider distribution, but as far as new releases January is where studios tend to offload their biggest mistakes and misfires.

However, a movie can still be entertaining even when it isn’t very good.

Take “Escape Room,” for example. It’s a formulaic and predictable horror thriller that absolutely deserves its early January release date. That being said, it’s got an interesting concept with which it proves willing to have some fun, at least initially. Sure, the movie’s back end devolves into illogic and nonsense, but that’s OK. As long as you set the bar nice and low, there’s no reason for you to not have a good time.

A seemingly unconnected group of people each receive a mysterious invitation, a puzzle box that, upon being solved, directs them to an escape room company called Minos and promises a $10,000 reward to anyone who can successfully make their way out.

College student Zoey (Taylor Russell, TV’s “Lost in Space”), finance bro Jason (Jay Ellis, TV’s “Insecure”), burnout Ben (Logan Miller, “Love, Simon”), troubled ex-soldier Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll, TV’s “Daredevil”), amiable trucker Mike (Tyler Labine, TV’s “New Amsterdam”) and escape room enthusiast Danny (Nik Dodani, TV’s “Murphy Brown”) meet for the first time in the waiting room at Minos. Quickly, unexpectedly, the game begins.

But it doesn’t take long for them all to realize that the dangers that they face are very real.

As the group makes its way from room to room, they’re left to frantically try and solve the puzzles put before them by the gamemakers … and they soon learn that the consequences of failure are deadly. It turns out that these six people DO have something in common, something that makes their participation in this game of great interest to the operators behind the scenes.

What began as an effort to win a game becomes a desperate struggle for survival – a struggle to win a game in which the odds appear to be insurmountably stacked against them.

No one is going to argue that “Escape Room” is great cinema. Hell, there’s a lot in this movie that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The logistics of the operation alone are staggering, while the efforts to tie the narrative together border on the ludicrous. The people involved lack dimension beyond one or two basic defining attributes; they’re more caricature than character. One might say that there’s plenty of room for improvement.

But as far as January garbage movies go, it’s at least a good time. Once you accept that none of it is really meant to hold up under even the slightest bit of logical scrutiny, there’s some fun here. Take the production design, for example. While there’s no earthly way any of them could actually work, there’s no disputing that the assorted rooms are interesting to look at. They’re engagingly designed and kind of cool, even if they do defy certain basic tenets of physical law.

It’s a competently-made film, which is better than a lot of the genre junk we tend to get at this time of year. Director Adam Robitel looks like someone to watch – he helmed the most recent “Insidious” movie and co-wrote a “Paranormal Activity” installment, so he clearly knows his way around a horror film. This one is mostly forgettable, but there are occasional moments that indicate the potential for something more.

The cast is fine. It’s the sort of ensemble you tend to get with this kind of movie, with a collection of performers that look vaguely familiar but not in any specific way. None of the performances really stand out, but everyone does their job. They hit their marks and say their lines and lean into the one or two characteristics that they’ve been given; no one goes deep, but no one is meant to go deep. It’s all very surface level; they’re all fairly typical horror movie ciphers. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, though you are left not really caring much about what happens to any of them.

“Escape Room” is basically a PG-13 “Saw” knockoff, less bloody and lacking the incessant puppet-fueled moral proselytizing that made that series so insufferable. It hits a lot of the same beats, albeit in slightly different ways. It’s not a good movie, but it’s far from the worst. For an early January release, that’s a win.

[3 out of 5]

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