Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2021-07-26 17:47

Written by: Will Honley & Maria Melnik (screenplay), Daniel Tuch & Oren Uziel (screenplay), Christine Lavaf & Fritz Böhm (story)
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Starring: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, and Holland Roden

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"The game is over when we say it’s over."

When it was released in 2019, Escape Room drew inevitable comparisons to Saw. Even though that franchise has been mostly moribund for nearly a decade, it casts such a long shadow that it’s impossible to produce a horror movie involving demented games without evoking James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s seminal torture franchise. However, the filmmakers took an interesting, almost subversive approach to the material by not indulging the natural, gore-soaked impulses of the premise, opting instead to create the opposite of a splatter movie. Instead, the chief intrigue of Escape Room isn’t how the characters will bite the dust—it’s how they piece together clues to survive the death traps. It made for a sharp, fun film that left the door open for future installments, and predictably enough, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions arrives two years later, picking up where its predecessor left off and honoring its approach in crafting more puzzle-based mayhem. It also goes a step further, though, by leaning into the shadow of Saw as this franchise begins to weave its own, sprawling mythology through meandering twists and surprising character returns.

While the first film left of with the implication that survivors Zoey and Ben (Taylor Russell & Logan Miller) would embark on an ill-fated flight in their quest to expose the shadowy corporation that put them in a deadly game of survival, Tournament of Champions reveals they never made it onto the plane. Zoey’s reluctance to fly has kept the pair grounded but no less paranoid: she’s in therapy, while he has recurring nightmares about being suddenly trapped in collapsing rooms. Desperate to find peace of mind, the friends decide to road trip across the country to Minos’s headquarters, only to find the place abandoned. When a vagrant steals Zoey’s prized necklace, the two are lured into a subway train that literally goes off the rails before the passengers—which include four other survivors from previous games—realize they’ve been trapped to play another round.

Despite running twelve minutes shorter than its predecessor, Tournament of Champions seems preoccupied with going bigger. Not only are the rooms even more elaborate and imaginative than before, but the scope expands even further by bringing in survivors from other, unseen games. It’s a clever hook, albeit one that may have been better served for a sequel down the road. I can’t help but wonder how much more effective this might have been if we had seen the new survivors in their own movies, making this more of a Fast Five or Avengers-style crossover. Instead, the newcomers get brief introductions and effectively serve as supporting fodder for the two returning characters we do know. I suppose it makes sense, considering where the last film left off—I just feel like this would feel more like an event and would better earn its title if everyone was a familiar character. It would be like if Jeopardy held a Tournament of Champions with only two returning champions and a new challenger.

Maybe I’m nitpicking, and the good news is that the new characters are solid enough. Like the first movie, Tournament of Champions wants the audience to like the characters, or, at the very least not find them to be utterly disposable. Where so many slashers (and the Saw films) almost always feature a character who exists to court utter disdain, the characters here skip the tired bickering routine and immediately begin to cooperate. They even hold a moment of silence for the first person to fall victim to one of the rooms! Now, I’m not going to pretend these characters are nuanced, compelling portraits of humanity (one’s a priest, another’s a girl that can’t feel pain, one guy looks like discount Vin Diesel, etc.), but it’s nice that these characters are, well, nice. It allows the film to simply hit the ground running and get to the business allowing its deranged puzzles to unfold.

And with a title like Escape Room, this is where the movie has to really deliver, anyway. It does so and then some, as the quartet of screenwriters dream up some wonderfully inventive rooms that grow more intricate as the players advance. The cluttered subway car graduates to a mock bank lobby booby trapped with a flesh-melting laser grid before the players find themselves on a simulated beach with killer quicksand. Each room is stuffed with clues and a ticking clock, meaning the action moves at a neckbreak pace as the characters frantically piece everything together. Tournament of Champions is relentless in this respect, offering few breathers along the way, and Robitel handles the chaos well, clearly establishing the stakes and geography of each room to maximize suspense: every movement or decision is harrowing because one false step could result in someone being melted by lasers or acid rain. And while I understand the PG-13 approach, I still wish those mistakes had gory payoffs that could take the Escape Room franchise to another level.

Instead, Tournament of Champions borrows from the other signature well of Saw: its ridiculous, convoluted mythos, which spun an increasingly sprawling web via retcons and plot twists. Like in the original, each room also advances a larger, cryptic story explaining the method behind the game’s madness. Recurring clues involving a mysterious “Sonya” ultimately pay off with a twist that centers Zoey and Ben, making it clear that Escape Room isn’t just going to take the easy way out by simply devising a new game with disposable characters. It’s an admirable if not heavily familiar move, considering the twist and the name of a character involved recalls Saw II. The effectiveness hinges on just how attached you are to these characters: I found it to be clever enough in the way it turns the film on its head and poses a pretty gripping moral dilemma for the survivors, even if the script takes the most obvious route to escape it.

Time will tell if tethering this franchise to specific characters will pay off like it did for Saw, but something tells me it’ll be tough since its villain is a shadow organization that doesn’t quite bring the same gravitas as John Kramer and his army of minions. One thing’s for sure, though: even Jigsaw would have to tip his backwards baseball cap to the Minos Corporation for their impressive feats in foresight and engineering. Tournament of Champions asks its audience to just go with its massive leaps in logic, which ask it to assume this cabal can coordinate a massive conspiracy to ensnare the two folks who know they exist.

Maybe there’s something compelling and timely about that, the notion that we’re all just pawns in a game orchestrated by unseen elites. Indeed, the most effective parts of Tournament of Champions play up the paranoiac angle where Zoey and Ben aren’t sure what’s part of a game and what isn’t. I almost wish that were the entire premise of this sequel: not only would it have been a departure from simply subjecting the characters to another game, but it would have also given the film a genuinely dangerous, more unsettling energy. Ben’s nightmare scene—which finds his hotel room suddenly forged into a crucible of horror—is arguably the film’s best moment because it blurs the line between fiction and reality, allowing the audience to briefly feel the characters’ paranoia in a way that doesn’t return until the film’s climax.

Maybe the next sequel will run wild with this premise instead: you know that Tik Tok meme that’s been going around where it turns out everything is cake? I want that but with escape rooms: nothing is what it seems because everything’s part of the game. If Escape Room wants to be Saw-lite (complete with a Minos rep doing a better Jigsaw voice than the one in Spiral, to be fair), it might as well go all-out and embrace the kooky logic hinted at in the final scenes in each movie so far. Back in 2019, I thought Escape Room lingered on a few beats too long because it deflated its own well-wrought tension; now, I see it as a tease for a bigger, crazier movie that we haven’t quite seen yet. But that’s the great thing about horror sequels: there’s always next time.

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