'Escape Room: Tournament of Champions' Spoiler Review: A Fun Time That Won't Let the Mystery Be

B-rated horror movies are cinematic junk food. For every slow-burn drama and genre-bending surprise, it’s nice to cleanse the palette with something easy, clever, and earnestly ridiculous. They come in all shapes and sizes, but their simple premises tend to bubble down to a single, weirdly specific question. Here’s an example: what if escape rooms were deadly?

This is how the 2019 horror film Escape Room came to be, a surprising thriller with an inventive approach to its premise. The movie threw its characters into progressively wilder scenarios that took their collective wits to escape. Audiences had the pleasure of tagging along for the ride as characters struggled to solve puzzles for the sake of their survival and in true horror fashion, were slowly killed off, whittling the cast down to our main two. Its sequel, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is almost exactly the same, but sadly it doubles down on the same flaw that plagued the first: explaining itself.

Bring On The Puzzle Solving

The movie’s major selling point is in the title. Hint: it’s not the champions.

Whenever we’re actually in the rooms watching the characters get down to the nitty-gritty puzzle-solving, things move along perfectly — especially given the new cast of characters and ramped-up circumstances they find themselves in. Tournament of Champions gathers a group of people who managed to survive the deadly Minos escape rooms once before. Familiar faces Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller) team up once again with a group of strangers, who now know exactly what they’re up against.

In a way, Zoey and Ben have purposely walked into a trap. After the events of the first film, they decide to pursue Minos, the shadowy organization that tortured them, in hopes of finding evidence. Though they escaped with their lives, they had no proof to hold the company accountable and no other surviving witnesses to back them up. Scenes from the first film are used in a lengthy montage to catch us up on this context. This is mostly excusable but provides the first example of the first film haunting the second with unnecessary explanations.

Thankfully, little time is wasted getting to the first puzzle. Minos lures Zoey and Ben into a subway car where they encounter the other champions and, immediately, the games begin. The first puzzle is an electrified train car with hidden tokens needed to earn their escape. It’s simple but gets the action started, ramping up the tension. It also introduces the other experienced players and shows off what they bring to the table.

Rachel (Holland Roden), Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel), Brianna (Indya Moore), and Theo (Carlito Olivero) put the pieces together along with Zoey and Ben. Once they figure out what’s happening again, they have brief moments of panic but quickly spring into action to ensure their survival. After all, they know exactly what they’re up against and there’s no point wasting time with prolonged panic.

Once the movie is in its element, it continues to speed ahead. The rooms get progressively more creative, jumping from a laser-secured bank to bubbling quicksand and an acid rain-equipped New York street. The movie’s approach to puzzles is surprisingly engaging: they’re not exactly mysteries the audience can solve along with the characters given we only have what information they manage to notice. And even though they spend much of their dialogue yelling obvious things aloud (“the room is filling with water!”), the set design and clever direction from Adam Robitel keep the tension intact. Watching them solve the puzzles and escape by the skin of their teeth (or die trying) is more than enough to keep the movie exciting.

Until it decides to slow down.

 

So Much Trauma

For the most part, Tournament of Champions‘ characters are paper-thin. But every now and then you forget just how underdeveloped they are, tricked by the movie’s favorite cheat — trauma. Frequent mention is made to the trauma each character endured from their last go-around in Minos’ escape rooms. In fact, trauma was a guiding principle for the first film. The original group was made up of those who were sole survivors of individual disasters. In Zoey’s case, surviving a plane crash that took her parents continued to haunt her then and still does well into this film. The fact that she has trouble boarding a plane is why she and Ben couldn’t initially follow through on their plan to hunt down Minos.

Similarly, Brianna, Rachel, and Nathan make reference to their fears of playing the game and dying. Their panic and genuine distress mixed with our humanity mean we do start feeling bad for their terrible circumstances…but we never linger long enough to reach any poignance. Similarly, Moore, who’s previously proven her massive talent on Pose, has nowhere to go with her character.

The movie makes occasional attempts to address the emotions that come with being trapped in a death maze, but it moves too quickly to have an impact. Following Theo’s demise in the subway puzzle, the group briefly mourns the stranger, realizing they didn’t even know his name. After introducing themselves, they fall into bickering, then determine they should keep moving on to the next set piece. As the shaft door opens, we move on from any further mention of Theo. Maybe this is fine because the movie is, after all, at its best when things keep moving and puzzles are being solved.

Nothing Makes Sense — But It Doesn’t Have To

The first Escape Room managed to maintain that focus for the majority of its run time, and in its final act, zoomed out to reveal some truth behind Minos and how the escape rooms actually worked. Tournament of Champions repeats this formula but spends even more time and effort on its explanations, with a third act that drags. Deborah Ann Woll returns as Amanda, the mother of the mysterious Sonya that the games kept leaving clues about. Turns out she didn’t die because, as she tells Zoey, “if you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.”

The more the movie’s world expands, the less believable it becomes which is only a problem because it insists on trying to make sense of everything. But why does anything need to make sense?

The movie starts because all of the champions happen to be in New York, heading in the same direction, on the same Q train, in the same exact car that no one else got onto. How did this happen? Who cares!

When it’s not trying to justify its own ridiculousness, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is a decent time. It’s got flashier, more exciting action than the first, and isn’t afraid to delve into all sorts of convoluted craziness. Plus, when the credits roll, it unleashes a wild dub-step track. There’s almost certainly a third movie to follow but, if not, we’ll always have the tense laser-bank scene to revisit.

 

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