Jumping on the real-world trend of team-building, puzzle-solving escape rooms, “Escape Room” takes the life-or-death thriller approach. Boasting an enticing high-concept premise that's broadly not unlike 1997’s “Cube” or 2009’s underseen “Exam,” this is a clever, involving little thriller as long as one can suspend disbelief and just go with it. Director Adam Robitel (who seems to have fallen into a sweet spot for having his films, this and 2018's “Insidious: The Last Key,” be the first wide releases in January of each year) and screenwriters Bragi Schut (2011’s “Season of the Witch”) and Maria Melnik (TV’s “American Gods”) sustain their premise for the long haul with skillful execution and more than enough ticking-clock tension before they have to reach an endgame and dole out answers. Even then, “Escape Room” will be an easy sell to those who enjoy solving puzzles (and escape rooms) and were intrigued by the chamber piece-like “Saw” but were not having the torture and cruelty.
Six strangers each receive puzzle boxes that unlock invitations to the most intensely immersive escape room in a Chicago building with a $10,000 prize. There’s mousy but brilliant college student Zoey (Taylor Russell); squirrelly grocery store stocker Ben (Logan Miller); arrogant investment broker Jason (Jay Ellis); scarred Iraq War veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll); happy-go-lucky trucker Mike (Tyler Labine); and excitable gamer Danny (Nik Dodani). Once they all arrive and wait for the game to begin, escape room expert Danny tries to take the lead, but as he and the others begin to realize, the waiting room is part of the game and just the beginning. Not only will these strangers, who all have something in common from their pasts, have to collaborate as a team and be resourceful in their hunting for clues, but they will have to stay alive.
Exchanging gore and forced shock tactics for jittery, tried-and-true suspense and gasps galore, “Escape Room” is an expertly devised gimmick. With propulsive pacing and John Carey and Brian Tyler’s buzzy music score assisting in keeping one on edge, the film allows one to look past the inherent absurdity and logistics of the time and care it would take the mysterious puppet master to elaborately construct everything. The actors throw themselves into the material, Taylor Russell (Netflix’s “Lost in Space”), Logan Miller (2018’s “Love, Simon”) and Deborah Ann Woll (Netflix’s “Daredevil”) being the biggest standouts, and make the most of their two-dimensional characters with their clashing personalities and ability to swiftly make smarter decisions than any audience member probably ever could. The varying rooms are shrewdly designed, from a waiting room that becomes a literal oven, to a perilous frozen lake, to a psychedelic black-and-white checkerboard room. In the most memorable set-piece, the characters enter a topsy-turvy billiards bar where a panel in the ceiling drops periodically to disorienting, palm-sweating effect and the radio unnervingly keeps playing Petula Clark’s ‘60s earworm “Downtown.”
Bookended by an unnecessary in medias res cold open and two tacked-on epilogues that don’t stick the landing, "Escape Room," even for a wrap-up that isn’t as satisfying as the ride preceding it, is too entertaining to be written off. There is a gripping connectivity between the viewer and the characters in figuring out how to escape each room, and the mystery of why they each have been chosen to be tested is tantalizing enough. Until it seems to be banking on a potential sequel to clear up the whys and hows, “Escape Room” is a surprisingly commanding suspense thriller. As an inaugural 2019 release, it’s an effective start, to boot.