Runtime: 88 minutes
Director: Adam Robitel
Writers: Will Honley (screenplay), Maria Melnik (screenplay), Daniel Tuch (screenplay), Oren Uziel (screenplay), Christine Lavaf (story), Fritz Bohm (story)
Actors: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Thomas Cocquerel, Holland Roden, Indya Moore
By Caelyn O’Reilly
2019’s “Escape Room” was a pleasant surprise, an extremely enjoyable horror/thriller with creative sets and effects, snappy pacing and genuinely engaging characters you wanted to see survive. It was perhaps lost in discussions of recent horror successes under the fawning praise for the Jordan Peeles and Ari Asters of the world, but it definitely deserves more attention. It ends with an extremely blatant bit of sequel bait, something that – done poorly – can seem obnoxiously self-assured or if attached to a complete bomb that never gets a follow-up, accidentally hilarious (hello, Dark Universe). But this film’s sequel hook was exciting and made me earnestly look forward to a potential second entry. And after the slight disappointment that was “Spiral” earlier this year, it made me look forward to this puzzle-heavy serialized horror sequel all the more. And unlike that film, “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” largely delivers on its promise.
Adam Robitel returns to direct as do its two surviving stars, Taylor Russell’s Zoey and Logan Miller’s Ben. Though the script this time is helmed by a new team of six credited writers, normally a worrying sign but they must have worked really well together because this film is very tightly written throughout its breezy 88-minute running time. The narrative here is so connected to the first film that it opens with a full narrated recap that basically functions as a ‘Previously on Escape Room’ segment. The early scenes focus heavily on the trauma of these two surviving characters after their experiences in the first film, including a therapy session and vivid nightmare. This was really pleasing as too many horror films portray characters surviving these terrifying experiences and coming out the other side with a renewed zeal and lease on life. But films like this as well as “Scream 3” and 2018’s “Halloween” attempt to confront the trauma and PTSD that would likely come from these experiences. This theme is developed during the main escape room sections that make up the film’s second act as – true to the subtitle – all the players are survivors of previous games à la “Catching Fire”.
This section of the film introduces a new cast of characters, including Rachel (Holland Rolen), Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel) and Brianna (Indya Moore). All of them get moments to shine throughout the thrilling and convoluted death-defying, puzzle-solving setpieces that are just as entertainingly visualised as the first time round. I’m especially delighted to see Moore in this film, both because of her excellent work on “Pose” and because it’s wonderful to see fellow trans people succeeding on screen.
“While the film’s second act does a great job of obscuring the final twist, it doesn’t factor into the ending directly all that much and could be argued as being filler. Entertaining filler sure, but filler.”
Though these escape room scenes made me think a lot about the line between the genres of horror, action and the ever-nebulous “thriller”. Like, how is this any more “horror” than Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson fumbling with water jug puzzles in “Die Hard With a Vengeance”? Is it the constant threat of death in this action-heavy scenario that makes it horror? Then what about films like “Speed” and “Crank”? Just a little genre tangent I got myself caught up in while enjoying the characters evading electrocution, lasers and quicksand.
The whole thing builds up to a satisfying twist that genuinely caught me off-guard that I will not spoil here as I do recommend you see both of these films. But needless to say I’m now just as excited for a third “Escape Room” movie as I was for this sequel back in 2019.
I do have some minor disappointments and nitpicks about “Tournament of Champions” though. While the film’s second act does a great job of obscuring the final twist, it doesn’t factor into the ending directly all that much and could be argued as being filler. Entertaining filler sure, but filler. I also wish the characters being previous players had impacted the way they approached the situation a bit more outside of them being more ruthlessly efficient in the puzzle solving than the first film’s leads and Nathan getting an interesting bit of martyr complex. The PTSD focus of the early scenes is almost entirely cast aside when the escape rooms start and while the new characters each get a line or two hinting at the nature of their previous experiences, I wish they too had gotten flashbacks that made these aspects of their characterisation feel more prominent and concrete. But overall I had an absolute blast with this film, and I look forward to a third. And while this doesn’t quite match the quality of the first film, it’s a very worthy successor that had me picking my feet up from the cinema floor with its exhilarating tension.
Photo credit: Rotten Tomatoes, Production company: Moonlighting Films, Columbia Pictures, Shaken Not Stirred, Original Film