From left, Taylor Russell, Jay Ellis, Logan Miller and Tyler Labine play folks under pressure in “Escape Room.” (Courtesy David Bloomer/Sony Pictures)

‘Escape Room’ tantalizes both brains and brawn

True cineastes know that January movies are generally unwanted castoffs, the riffraff that wouldn’t play well with others in summer or at the holidays or awards time. But sometimes one person’s trash is another person’s treasure: The suspense-thriller “Escape Room” somewhat justifies that sentiment.

It’s a little like a lot of other movies, but is also its own kind of movie.

It’s a little like the “Saw” movies, but not scary or gory. It’s a little like “The Belko Experiment,” but with less to say about human nature. It’s a little like David Fincher’s “The Game,” but not afraid to be a genre film. And it’s a little like Vincenzo Natali’s “Cube” but a little less… far out.

It’s compact and tight, set in confined spaces, over a finite period of time, with characters that are strangers thrown together — as we in the audience are thrown in with them.

They discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses, judge each other, then reconsider, and eventually begin to care. And we do too.

Essentially, the story has mysterious invitations sent to six people to a new kind of escape room.

They are: ultra-shy, ultra-smart student Zoey (Taylor Russell), slobbish supermarket clerk Ben (Logan Miller), tough ex-military Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), good ol’ boy truck driver Mike (Tyler Labine), slick, corporate sales guy Jason (Jay Ellis), and veteran escape room geek Danny (Nik Dodani).

Some come out of their shells, others reveal their darker sides.

The adventure begins as the waiting room is revealed as the first room, slowly turning into an inferno as the six doggedly try to find the clues to escape.

The rooms become more and more astonishing, including a wintry landscape over a frozen lake, an upside-down pool room, an old library and a psychedelic space filled with swirling black-and-white checkerboards (Note: This sequence comes with a seizure warning).

Eventually, even as characters are eliminated, the remaining people discover the mysterious connection that drew them together.

Directed by Adam Robitel (“Insidious: The Last Key”), “Escape Room” perhaps goes a little too far with its flash-forward opening sequence that probably ought to have been put back where it belonged, and its denouncement is somewhat absurd. But a tightly-snapped, devil-may-care finale is fiendishly satisfying.

Screenwriters Maria Melnik and Bragi F. Schut — both making their big-screen debut after working in television and short films — nicely combine brainy puzzles and bodily reactions.

It’s tempting to try to solve their little enigmas as the movie goes along, but it’s awfully difficult amid distractingly gleeful tension and dread. Thankfully, the characters rarely do anything unforgivably dumb that an audience member couldn’t have done better.

While “Escape Room” succeeds in unlocking raw, primal human fear and adrenaline, it also tries, needlessly and a little half-heartedly, to justify its reasons for doing so at the eleventh hour.

But that’s just a minor dead end. Eventually, “Escape Room” circles back around, finds the finish, and wins both our hearts and our minds.

Escape Room
Three stars

Starring: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine
Written by: Maria Melnik, Bragi F. Schut
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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