ESCAPE ROOM (2019) – Puzzle Thriller Better Than Expected

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Deborah Ann Woll feels the heat in ESCAPE ROOM (2019).

 

I wasn’t expecting much from ESCAPE ROOM (2019), the new “solve the puzzle or you die” thriller that clearly has eyes on becoming a franchise. Critics haven’t been kind to it, and word of mouth has been mute.

But in spite of a boneheaded opening and very contrived ending, ESCAPE ROOM was easily better than I expected.

ESCAPE ROOM opens with a supposed harrowing sequence of a young man Ben Miller (Logan Miller) desperately seeking clues inside a room that is quickly closing in on him, and he’s in danger of being crushed to death unless he can find whatever it is he’s looking for. Since we know absolutely nothing about this character, this opening sequence is just okay and is hardly an exciting way to open the movie.

The action jumps backwards several days, and we meet a group of characters who all receive a strange cube for various reasons inviting them to take part in an escape room puzzle game that will put them in a room with seemingly no escape. If they can figure their way out, they win $10,000.

There’s main character Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell) an extremely introverted college student whose professor advises her to take more risks in life, and to start by doing something that is out of her comfort zone over the Thanksgiving break. We also meet Ben Miller, a young man who’s sort of a loser and is struggling even to keep his grocery store job. Of course, we met Miller in the opening sequence, giving away any suspense as to his fate since we know he’ll survive long enough to reach the collapsing room, which is why I called the opening sequence boneheaded.

There’s also Jason Walker  (Jay Ellis), a hotshot stockbroker who always plays to win, Amanda Harper (Deborah Ann Woll), an Iraqi war veteran with a traumatic past, Mike Nolan (Tyler Labine) a down to earth truck driver, and Danny Khan (Nik Dodani) a nerdy gamer who’s played these escape room games before.

At first, they’re all pretty excited to play, except for Amanda who seems to sense something is wrong from the outset, and something is wrong, because it doesn’t take these folks long to realize that it isn’t a game but is real. If they don’t escape from each room, they die, and once they start being killed, the intensity ratchets up.

The main reason ESCAPE ROOM works as well as it does is its cast, which creates amiable characters who in spite of their flaws are folks you easily feel comfortable rooting for.

Taylor Russell is excellent in the lead role of Zoey Davis. She’s convincing as an introvert who later on must channel her energies to survive and help her new friends to do the same. Russell was also memorable as Judy Robinson in the Netflix reboot of LOST IN SPACE (2018-2019). She is a young actress to keep your eye on.

Logan Miller is very good as socially challenged Ben Miller, and his performance keeps the audience from ever really disliking a character who could have been very annoying. Miller has also appeared on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

Jay Ellis is sufficiently cold and driven as winner-take-all stock broker Jason Walker, and Deborah Ann Woll adds a lot of depth to her Iraq-war veteran character Amanda Harper. I’m a big fan of Woll’s work on the Netflix Marvel shows DAREDEVIL (2015-18), THE PUNISHER (2017-2019) and THE DEFENDERS (2017) where she has the recurring role of Karen Page. In fact, the main reason I wanted to see ESCAPE ROOM was because of Deborah Ann Woll.

Tyler Labine does a nice job as Mike Nolan, while Nik Dodani plays the one character Danny Khan who’s sadly reduced to being a cliché.

Most of the escape rooms in the film are pretty creative, and the sequences where the characters need to escape or die are generally exciting, although they never approach seat-squirming levels. It’s all pretty neat and safe, but it’s not dull, and with these actors in the roles I really did care for them and wanted to see them survive.

The screenplay by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik works for the most part. Its strength is it creates likable characters and gives them realistic dialogue. It wisely avoids giving away answers— the biggest question being who is doing this and why?— until the end, and that’s where things dip a bit.

The idea of characters having to escape a series of deadly rooms works best in the abstract. It all makes for thrilling cinema until the moment arrives when it’s time for some answers. Who is doing this? Why? How? And these answers are far more difficult to come up with while keeping the story realistic. I can’t say the writers really succeeded here.

And the set up for a sequel is by far the most contrived part of the movie and the least believable. It’s also the weakest part of the film.

But before this I thought director Adam Robitel did a nice job keeping things suspenseful. I certainly enjoyed ESCAPE ROOM more than I did Robitel’s previous directorial effort, the dreadful INSIDIOUS:THE LAST KEY (2018).

The story itself here is secondary to the plight of the characters trying to escape the rooms, and that’s the best part of this enjoyable thriller. For most of the film, you don’t know why this is happening, but you also don’t really care. The characters are fleshed out enough so that you care about them.

And sometimes for a movie to work, that’s all you need.

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Weak Writing Slays Season 2 of DAREDEVIL (2016)

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I absolutely loved Season 1 of the Netflix/Marvel TV show DAREDEVIL.  It was dark, gritty, and had a definite edge to it.  The writing was superb, the characters fleshed out, and it had a helluva villain, Wilson Fisk, masterfully played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who for my money was better than any of the villains seen in the Marvel Superhero movies.

But Season 2— well, simply put, Season 2 was a major disappointment.

Yup, Season 2 of DAREDEVIL fell short on so many fronts.

We can start with the absence of Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio).  Both the character and D’Onofrio’s performance were clearly my favorite parts of Season 1.  With Fisk caught at the end of Season 1, it meant there would be a new villain in town.  I hoped the writers would be up to the task of filling the void left by the departure of Fisk.  They were not.

Fisk was such a dominating force in Season 1, the villain who pretty much set the tone for the entire series, and who made the hero Daredevil stronger because of his presence.  In Season 2, there was no such driving force.  The main villains this time around, the shadowy Ninja group known as The Hand, and their leader, the nearly supernatural Nobu, mainly remained in the shadows, their motives barely expressed.

But the lack of a strong villain on its own wouldn’t be enough to sink the entire second season of DAREDEVIL.  There’s more.

Let’s start with the main character himself, Daredevil/aka Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox).  I hate to say it, but simply put, Matt Murdock became a complete bore in Season 2, which is a complete turnaround from the compelling character we met in Season 1.  One of the best things about Murdock in Season 1 was his relationship with his friends Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll).  Nelson is his best friend from law school, and the two practice law together at their own tiny firm.  Karen becomes their secretary, and in Season 1 there was a fun sexual tension between the three of them.

All of that disappeared in Season 2.  Matt becomes distracted with the return of a former lover, the unpredictable and dangerous Elektra (Elodie Yung), and he ends up spending nearly the entire season in an on again/off again relationship with Elektra, while also using most of his energy to help her combat The Hand.  As a result, he blows off Foggy and Karen at nearly every turn, leaving them to spend nearly the entire season reacting to his terrible treatment of them.  It gets so bad that eventually Foggy calls it quits and dissolves the firm.

To make matters even worse, Matt finally acts on his feelings towards Karen, but then does an about face and dumps her for Elektra, which was too bad, because Matt and Karen shared some chemistry.  Matt and Elektra do not.

As such, two of the more enjoyable characters from Season 1, Foggy and Karen, get reduced to being emotional punching bags for Matt Murdock.  Even worse for Karen, once she leaves the firm, she enters a ridiculous storyline where she becomes a reporter and suddenly is a major newspaper writer because she “has a knack for that sort of thing.”  I have a knack for cooking too but you don’t see me suddenly hosting my own TV show on the Food Network.  Writing is hard work, and any story that implies otherwise is difficult to take seriously.

The dialogue in Season 2 also did not help matters.

The philosophical conversations Daredevil had with the Punisher were trite, cliche, and hopelessly dull.  They basically debated over vigilantism, with the Punisher arguing it’s okay to kill while Daredevil would display his halo— is he Daredevil or Dareangel?— and say klling is always wrong.  Daredevil’s stance is admirable— heck, Batman lives by the same creed— but the writing here was so bad, the dialogue so basic it was laughable.

Speaking of the Punisher, Jon Bernthal’s performance as the Punisher was one of the highlights of Season 2, and he got to enjoy a few decent episodes.  But as the season went on, his storyline got pushed into the background, taking a back seat to the Elecktra plot with the Hand. Anwyay, I’m glad he’s getting his own Punisher TV show soon.  I’m looking forward to it.

The other new character, Elektra, I didn’t like as much.  I never warmed up to her.  A big reason why was I enjoyed Matt’s chemistry with Karen more than his chemistry with Elektra.  She was also stuck in a story I didn’t like, the whole plot with the Hand.

What exactly was the Hand up to?  Their motives were never made clear, and the show clearly suffered for it.  There was so much screen time devoted to Matt and Elektra discussing the Hand, and I just didn’t care about any of it.

Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) does show up for a couple of episodes, where he’s in prison and his path crosses with The Punisher’s, in what clearly were the best episodes of Season 2.

Season 1 of DAREDEVIL had a central villain, Wilson Fisk, who had an agenda, and who’s violent antics gave Daredevil a major challenge and a reason for being.  With Fisk gone and without a powerful foe, Daredevil morphed into a far less interesting character in Season 2.

All of these flaws revolve around one central weakness:  inferior writing.  The writing in Season 2 was far less impressive than the high quality writing from Season 1.  The plots were all over the place and hardly ever came together.  The strong trio of Matt, Foggy, and Karen were divided and left weaker and far less interesting.  Newcomer the Punisher was given little to do, and newcomer Elektra failed to impress.

The villains in Season 2, the Hand, were never fully developed, and for most the season, Daredevil was reduced to a whiny pontificating pacifist with a mask and bad taste in women.

Here’s hoping Season 3 will be an improvement.

Wilson Fisk can’t get out prison fast enough!

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