Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, 2021.
Directed by Adam Robitel.
Starring Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Indya Moore, Thomas Cocquerel, Holland Roden, and Carlito Olivero.
In this installment, six people unwittingly find themselves locked in another series of escape rooms, slowly uncovering what they have in common to survive…and discovering they’ve all played the game before.
Remember escape rooms? In a post-Covid world, it’s easy to forget a time where being locked in a room full of strangers was the cornerstone for a fun night out, and not inherently a horror premise. Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, the sequel to 2019’s surprise horror smash Escape Room, has the unfortunate assignment of existing in a world that is long past the escape room craze of the late-2010s — upon which the series had built its central gimmick. And yet, at no point while watching the movie did any of that matter, or even occur, to me. If Escape Room’s goal was to get people in theaters based on their familiarity with the escape room experience, then Tournament of Champions is fully committed to getting butts in seats based on audiences’ familiarity with the budding franchise.
With Tournament of Champions, the series earns its name’s utterance in the same sentence as the Saw franchise (a comparison which critics were eager to jump on back in 2019). Except it’s not because the two horror franchises have similar set-ups — put a group of unsuspecting, dynamic characters through a series of single room-based torture — it’s because both double down on their own mythology.
Tournament of Champions, equipped with a hugely sellable premise that would have lent itself to a ‘new cast of characters’ second installment, doesn’t hit the reset button; it doesn’t even downplay the events of the first film. It’s the rare studio horror movie to strongly suggest that the viewer see the previous movie before seeing the new one. The movie starts off with a one-minute sizzle reel of highlights from the first installment, to catch new viewers up, but it still largely expects viewers to be as knowledgeable of its premise and in love with its characters as it is.
The movie picks up with the two surviving escape room participants from the first movie, Taylor Russell’s Zoey and Logan Miller’s Ben, as they attempt to track down Minos, the evil company responsible for their traumatic experience. Traveling to New York City, the two fall into a trap that yet again places them right in the middle of Minos’ escape rooms, except this time they’re not playing the game with a group of newbies. The six contestants have all played the game before and were the sole survivors from their groups. The ‘tournament of champions’ commences, and this time Zoey doesn’t plan on playing by the Gamemaster’s rules; it’s her prerogative to not only survive the game but take down Minos once and for all.
There is little chance that Escape Room 2 will win over critics of the first film, and even genre die-hards may be put off by the film’s bloodless, toothless, PG-13 horror instincts, but it would also be unfair to use any of the film’s more pronounced flaws as a means to disregard its genuinely entertaining, occasionally subversive nature.
It’s a horror movie that’s based around a seldom explored question in movies of the same ilk: what if the characters, thrust into a game of life or death, actually liked and trusted one another? None of the six characters forced to take part in Minos’ next round of deadly escape rooms is detestable or serves as a circumstantial antagonist. Everybody, generally, gets along, laments the forces that are pitting them against one another, and realizes that ‘teamwork’ is the word. It’s the inverse of, for example, Saw V and the usual ‘it’s me or you’ torture porn movies; Tournament of Champions is the cinematic embodiment of a group project, where everyone has to do their part for a good grade.
Taylor Russell once again owns the screen, with another surprisingly tempered and nuanced performance as the soft-spoken but fiercely determined Zoey. While her material to work with is less emotionally hefty this time around, her character’s righteous anger at the game’s hidden string-pullers, paired with compassion for her fellow teammates and A+ contributions to the team, makes her impossible not to root for.
Also unlike Saw, Tournament of Champions isn’t mean-spirited; it doesn’t greet characters with excessive, blood-splattering deaths or revel in its overt cynicism. Continuing on the thread started with its 2019 predecessor, it’s a purely fun, intense (oftentimes very silly) popcorn movie, that proposes that maybe people don’t want to leave a torture porn movie with a bad taste in their mouth.
In general, Escape Room 2 is a mostly surface-level movie, almost forgetting to be about anything other than escaping the escape rooms. Despite one scene early on that demonstrates the lasting impact of the escape room experience on one of its survivors, the characters’ psychology and trauma aren’t really unpacked in the rest of the movie — which, honestly, is completely fine. The movie itself maintains a mostly ironclad devotion to solving its own puzzles and racing toward its own finish line, stopping to take stock of its characters only when absolutely necessary.
Fundamentally, the movie understands that people are more interested in its elaborate escape room set-pieces than whatever larger statement it has to make about grief or trauma, and decides to keep its focus firmly lock in on such. The sequel’s escape rooms are just as impossibly fun to watch our characters solve as the first one, and given each contestant’s familiarity with the game, from the word ‘go’ there’s no learning curve. The sleek designs and visual vibrancy of the rooms make them ideal deceptive environments for the dread-filled antics awaiting our characters in each new room.
One set-piece, in particular, which takes us inside an abandoned bank and the checkered floorboard at its center, is one of the franchise’s most effective so far. The scene combines the characters’ sense of cooperation and togetherness with the ticking-clock thrills of trying to solve a room before it’s too late.
That’s not to say that it’s all stellar though. The movie peaks around the midway point with the aforementioned bank-themed room, and after the pins-and-needles intensity of that scene, struggles to earn that same level of investment and intensity again. The latter half of the film all feels unnecessarily rushed, like the movie’s production schedule started running out and it had to rush toward a conclusion.
Additionally, director Adam Robitel likes to play around with interesting concepts and twists, without really knowing what to do with them. For example, in the film, we meet Holland Roden’s Rachel, a character who we learn is unable to feel pain, which in the right hands could be an incredibly fruitful, twisted idiosyncrasy to explore. But its potential amounts to a disappointing little and ultimately is used as an inoffensive quirk rather than a tool to create specific, appropriately clever set-pieces around.
Bigger, mythology-expanding twists later on in the film, while all in the spirit of fun and audience entertainment, are also hard for the film to justify or use in a satisfying way, beyond just their basic existence.
Without spoilers, Tournament of Champions leaves the door open for more in a way that would serve as a fresh, non-repetitive turn of events for the franchise. As long as the series keeps digging into and expanding its own mythology and characters, while offering up its own brand of visually vibrant and diverse set-pieces, there should be much to look forward to. The Escape Room franchise is surely ridiculous, and non-sensical, and light on substance, but it’s also too much fun for any of its glaring flaws to hold too much weight.
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions arrives in cinemas on July 16th.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★