Escape Room: Tournament of Champions and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by Adam Robitel
I have next to no memories of the first movie other than a general sense of loathing and contempt for its central premise and absurd ending. The whole thing just got memory-holed like so many bad horror movies I saw in theaters which I guess is an interesting position to be in when watching a sequel as the lack of concrete feelings definitely gives it a lot of leeway as far as trying new things; not to mention that the overall low opinion going into it only makes the bar that much easier to clear. It’s certainly possible that whatever negativity I felt for the first film has burned itself out and I’ll be more open for whatever this Saw Knockoff franchise wants to throw at me, but then again the trailers weren’t exactly selling me on anything beyond elaborate traps and people yelling which certainly sounds familiar to what I didn’t like last time around. Besides, we don’t NEED a Saw Knockoff anymore now that they’ve brought the series back and aimed it in a new and interesting direction! In any case, does this latest entry in the ESCAPE ROOM UNIVERSE expand upon the original and actually give us something interesting, or will this movie double down on everything that didn’t work the first time? Let’s find out!!
Following the events of the first film (which are helpfully summarized in a sequence that might as well have started with PREVIOUSLY ON ESCAPE ROOM), Zoey and Ben (Taylor Russell and Logan Miller) are still looking for the mysterious Minos corporation that set up the elaborate game from the first film and have seemingly set up games like this all over the place. After some cajoling from Zoey, the two of them travel to New York which seems to be their base of operations but find nothing there except an empty alley and a purse snatcher. Said purse snatcher grabs Zoey’s compass which I THINK was given to her by one of the characters in the first movie, and after an overly long chase through the streets of New York, they wind up on a subway car while the thief jumps out at the last second. For reasons that are never properly explained, this subway car JUST SO HAPPENS to have four other passengers on it and they all get directed into another one of those deadly escape rooms. ALSO as it turns out, the four other people are previous winners of one of Minos’s games which makes this (as one character helpfully says out loud) a tournament of champions. Our previous winners are Rachel, Brianna, Nathan, and Theo (Holland Roden, Indya Moore, Thomas Cocquere, and Carlito Olivero), and all six of them have to go from room to room solving deadly puzzles for some nebulous goal and the chance to maybe not get murdered, though with Zoey and Ben hot on Minos’s heels it seems unlikely that this game is just gonna swing open the doors for them even if they manage to find the right number of keys in a fish tank or whatever. Will Minos finally be brought down by the very champions that they’ve created, or will everyone be out for themselves in a desperate bid for survival? Is there more to this game than they first realize, or are the Shyamalan twists in this thing easy to spot from a mile away? Does any of it even matter when the game is apparently being run by money wizards that can literally do anything at any time with these nonsensical traps?
Welp. I guess the return of movies in theaters also means the return of TERRIBLE movies in theaters. Sure, Black Widow was nothing special, but this is the kind of low rent filler that I spent many a weekend watching in the Pre-Pandemic days and was frankly a little glad that I didn’t feel so obligated to cover when everything started coming to streaming services. I swear to God, this whole ESCAPE ROOM franchise is the most banana nonsense series out there with its completely perfunctory story draped over convoluted traps and an even more convoluted lore. I may not remember much about the first movie, but I can tell that they simply remade it here and I’m DREADING to find out how much longer they plan on stretching this series out.
The one question you cannot ask while watching this movie is WHY; and you know, a movie with a certain amount of creative verve or layered metaphor can get away with not answering that question, but this is NOT that movie by any stretch. The fact is that everything in this movie happens for the most arbitrary of reasons and for absolutely no effect; in one ear and out the other. The rooms themselves are well designed and full of interesting details if nothing else, but there’s no time to actually ENGAGE with it because we’re working on such an aggressively quick pace that the character are too busy to let the audience play along with it. They’re finding clues and making connection to things that we can’t even see on screen, and for the most part the actual danger comes completely out of nowhere with no reasonable expectation for characters to see it, understand it, or avoid it. SOMETIMES there’s a bit of foreshadowing like when things start to sink in the sand when the characters are looking, but for the most part the last person to know what the heck is going on is the audience and when the movie can’t bother to keep us in the loop of what’s going on, why should we care when things go sideways? It definitely FEELS quicker than in the last movie which I remember having a pretty extended scene in an ice level which is a shame because I think the actors are working with what they can and the writers are trying to squeeze something into the dialogue to make it more than just a forgettable menagerie of one note characters, but nothing gets the time it needs to really flesh itself out. The alcoholic priest has a few good moments but he’s not able to really sink into the depths that a broken character like that should have, and there’s a character with a rare medical condition that FEELS like a setup for something important but never amounts to anything. Even the returning characters who get the most screen time and the most dialogue don’t stand out as the writing for them is particularly lousy and frankly nothing gets resolved in this movie. There’s no arc for them to go through because what happens here ends up feeling so utterly meaningless and the resolution at the end feels as token as every other beat in the movie.
What’s even more disappointing is that it’s not even a good follow-up to the previous movie which is pretty impressive considering how blatantly they were sequel baiting in that one and now that they have the chance to expand upon whatever ridiculous lore they are building, they decided to punt instead. There is no advancement in the story, no subversion of expectations, and no enrichment of the established lore. The status quo is AGGRESSIVELY maintained from the last film and it was a terrible status quo to begin with as the primary antagonist of the movie is simply a non-presence and a total MacGuffin. Minos is just a name without a face or identity behind it; no overriding ethos or coherent motivation that justifies or even simply EXPLAINS their actions beyond the most absolute trite anti-capitalist message. If this franchise had an ounce of spine behind it, it’d actually try to say something other than RICH PEOPLE ARE BORED; especially in a genre where such social commentary has been well explored in better films. The Purge movies don’t pull their punches about who they are talking about and give them clear parallels to real world groups and ideas while Minos is little more than a bad Saturday Morning Cartoon villain. I can only assume that all this bearish attitude towards expanding the lore or making actual progress in the story is some cynical attempt at stretching the franchise out for another couple of sequels since the first one somehow made over a hundred million dollars at the box office against a ten million dollar budget. I guess the studios have to recover losses from the Pandemic somehow, but I’m not sure this is gonna have the same staying power as other overly milked horror franchises like Saw or those bafflingly popular Conjuring movies.
If there’s one place where the movie’s conceit comes together, it’s in the bank scene. It certainly has the same problems as the other set pieces as most of it is people yammering back and forth at each other over moon logic, but the good elements at least dampen these flaws enough for it to be enjoyable. There are a lot of interesting moving parts, and while the clues are still rather arbitrary there’s a much stronger sense of flow from one thing to the next as they steadily progress through the various traps. What really makes it work is the ticking clock which is constantly in the back of your mind (helped by the rhythmic music that sounds much like a clock ticking down) and the periodic announcement of how much time is remaining happen at the most inopportune moments to really kick things up a notch. With how shoddy and perfunctory the rest of the script is, it’s almost like they expect us to only care about the execution of the traps themselves; a notion I deeply resent since I have to sit through the whole darn thing anyway so why not at least TRY to make d make it all work (not to mention how the rest of the set pieces aren’t nearly as good), buy I will give them props for the brief time they did manage to find a way to make this work. PERHAPS this is proof that there is a way to make this series work and that a few more sequels down the road we’ll actually get something decent. I guess you could say it worked for Fast and Furious and even the Purge franchise, but I’m not about to get my hopes up.
After writing this review I went back and reread my review of the first movie, and after hastily correcting some grammatical errors, what I took away from it was that I was feeling A LOT more constructive about that film than this one because it so clearly wanted a sequel and I figured that they’d take the opportunity to improve on things. Sure, the Evil Corp nonsense definitely hit a nerve with me, but there was certainly room for improvement if given the right direction. Well it’s two years later and the end result is just as bad as the first time around. Maybe it’s an improvement in certain areas as I think the bank scene might just be the most memorable thing in either film, but the fact that we’re circling the same drain despite given the opportunity to actually DO something with this has definitely left me more deflated after seeing this one than seeing the original. I certainly don’t recommend running out to the theaters to see this movie; especially if it encourages them to make another one. MAYBE if they pull out all the stops and just finish this thing off in the next movie then there could be something worth watching, but there I go getting my hopes up again! When will I ever learn!?