“A breezy follow-up when it’s fully in sync with its possibilities and parameters, but the movie can’t always keep up what’s actually a pretty precarious balance.”
by Ken Bakely
Without credits, Adam Robitel’s Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is about 80 minutes long, which is the right runtime for this kind of movie – after all, as a sequel to 2019’s Escape Room, it doesn’t need to deal with even the surface-level exposition that the first film needed. It centers around even more deliriously absurd and hyperbolically elaborate setpieces for the characters to survive, a single-minded rhythm that could quickly wear thin. The story, if you really must know, focuses on Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller), survivors of the first film, who find themselves sucked back into the fold again. The shadowy organization that operates the deadly escape rooms have deep creativity and deeper pockets, and they’ve tricked the two into a sprawling array of new rooms, built under New York City, with four other survivors: Rachel (Holland Roden), Brianna (Indya Moore), Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel), and Theo (Carlito Oliveiro). When the subway car they’re riding on decouples from the rest of the train, slides onto a different track, and suddenly features bolts of electricity zapping on and around it, the group immediately knows what’s going on. But while they may have endured such trials before, the challenges have apparently been raised further just for them, and of course, not all of them can make it to the end – wherever the end actually is.
The pride and joy of an Escape Room movie is letting the viewer marvel at the complexities of the rooms themselves – from their high-concept designs, to their devious and deadly traps, to the convoluted puzzles needed to break free. Tournament of Champions offers a parade of impressively mounted and entertaining ones (two favorites are set in an Art Deco-style bank and a city block featuring a very morbid interpretation of “acid rain”). They make even less sense than they did last time, mind you, but analyzing them for ourselves has never been the real point to begin with; it’s instead about watching these characters narrowly escape (or not escape) doom as they piece together the clues scattered throughout. There can be no self-aware comedy to this, no possibility that Robitel and company are expressing anything less than complete confidence in their abilities to construct this world. But on the other hand, this is what makes it all the more lightly, casually entertaining. The script, by Will Honley, Maria Melnik, Daniel Tuch, and Oren Uziel, is outwardly as grim and busy as possible, after all. It enjoys bewildering us with its restless, Serious-with-a-capital-S fervor, not only in its conception of the setpieces, but in its peripheral worldbuilding. (For instance: now that we know that the escape rooms are run as gambling opportunities for the rich to watch others languish, an obvious class conflict reading emerges, which could be deepened by your interpretation of a plot twist in the third act. The irony to this is that we know the movie will never bother with that path in any real sense, but it has fun shooting off wild signals in all directions.)
In other words, it’s a sense of desperate immersion that makes Tournament of Champions a breezy follow-up when it’s fully in sync with its possibilities and parameters, but the movie can’t always keep up what’s actually a pretty precarious balance. It never feels less inspired than when it’s perfunctorily stumbling through the franchising now fully expected of it – there’s no joy or exuberance to the padding at the film’s close, in which more films could be set up. It’s not merely obvious in the way that all such “endings” tend to be, but it forces us to think about the particular details of the story that the movie itself knows it must tread on with a very light touch. This also bleeds through into, well, any time in between when the film is not dazzling us by gilding the lily over and over with the details of the rooms themselves, or showing the characters scrambling about before figuring out what to do just in time so that most of them can survive to the next challenge. Again, there’s a very limited perspective that the movie can pursue here within a very limited runtime. The novelty of the first movie no longer applies, and each successive entry must keep building with less new ground. While Tournament of Champions certainly has its own pleasures, it has to be lean and sharp with increasingly little room for error, and perhaps less than it assumes.