by Jordan King
Adam Robitel’s 2019 Saw-lite horror puzzler Escape Room was something of a minor gem in amongst the annual great deluge of subpar horrors. Capitalising on the real-world explosion of interest in escape rooms – who doesn’t want to be stuck in a room with your nearest and dearest solving puzzles and trying to hold onto sanity without severing the ties that bind? WHO?! – the film was a goreless, fun frightfest packing cool room designs and characters with enough about them to hope they’d make it out alive. My biggest grievance with it was how hard it seemed to be trying to set up a sequel.
Lo and behold, it’s 2021, and after a year locked in our houses, one of the first films on offer to returning cinemagoers is the sequel I had feared – Escape Room: Tournament of Champions. Robitel’s follow-up finds first film survivors Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller) dealing with the aftermath of their dice with death at the hands of shadowy cabal Minos. While Zoey receives counselling for her trauma, Ben suffers more quietly, his nightmares unlocking his innermost anxieties to trap him inside his own vision of hell.
Unable to escape their demons, Zoey and Ben track a lead to New York where they hope to catch Minos and expose their deadly games – it isn’t long however before they, alongside a new group of ex-Escape Room survivors, find them in a new fight for their lives. “What is this, tournament of champions?” asks one of the newbies, offering up the film’s best – and most eye-rolling – moment. Yes, yes it is Hunger Games: Catching Fire in an unfathomably proportioned industrial estate in NYC awaits.
Where Robitel’s first Escape Room had the element of surprise going for it, its elaborate puzzles and ingenious escape rooms offering sugar rush cheap thrills that could power viewers through a sub-90 minute romp, Tournament of Champions has no such gimmick going for it. Where the first film’s excesses were at least grounded by brainteasers that felt like they were intended for audiences to have a crack at, its spectacle shot through with flashes of surprising spirit and likable characterisations, this sequel jumps the shark early on and spends the rest of its runtime flailing in a sea of its own silliness.
An electrified train opener is an eyesore that depends on the characters’ ability to closely examine their surroundings as we are left wincing at the strobe lights and escalating screams. A later beach-set scenario is more easy on the eye, but the key to the competitors’ escape is dependent on wild leaps of logic that feel self-congratulatory on the writers’ part and irritatingly unattainable for us as spectators. The rooms, more heavily effects laden than the great upside down diner or static TV rooms of the first film, are still aesthetically interesting, but what happens in them is just thunderously boring and leaden with inexplicable revelation after inexplicable revelation. If we at least still had that novel inclination to put ourselves in the characters’ shoes and have a crack at the rooms for ourselves, enjoyment could be salvaged on a basic level, but no such mercy is afforded.
The new characters here are paper thin creations, with nerve-damaged Rachel (Holland Roden) the only addition to noticeably offer us someone to root for and remember. To their credit, Russell and Miller really do heroic work with a shonky screenplay, portraying PTSD and their characters’ connection through shared trauma in a way that is too nuanced to find itself in this particular film if truth be told. Miller especially has an impressive ability to humanise the absurdity that surrounds him, and in lieu of any attempt to offer viewers a way into these escape
rooms themselves, our dorky leading man does a fine job of trying to keep us in the game.
Sadly though, two capable leads maketh not a movie. Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is a victim of its predecessor’s unlikely success, and in a frenetic attempt to set up prequels, sequels, spin-offs, and more, somebody has clearly forgotten to keep an eye on the task at hand. While you may be able to glean enough cheap thrills from the film to feel you’ve had a bit of an escape from the mundanity of the day, you’ll more than likely be looking for the exit long before the film fades to black.
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is available on Netflix