Adam Robitel’s Escape Room was dumped. It was shoveled off to January, the month where genre movies go to die. The first month of the year has become somewhat notorious for having poor new movie releases. To be fair to the studios, it is an awkward area of the release calendar. There is not as much foot traffic in the theaters as there is during the summer months or the November-December holiday weekends. At the same time, January is a time when prestige movies are starting to do the rounds for awards season consideration. It just isn’t a month for blockbusters.
So studios dump their genre films there—the genre films they don’t have too much faith in, it appears. Sony released Escape Room on the first weekend of January 2019. And it did a shocking amount of business. 16 weeks later, the film had accumulated over $57 million domestic. Given the film ends on a (poorly executed) cliffhanger, the sequel seemed inevitable.
And yet, what is there to do in a sequel to a film about high stakes escape rooms? Besides doing more of the same, I’m not too sure. So when a movie called Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (in the running for worst movie title of the year) appeared on the release slate for summer 2021, I was understandably unimpressed. The trailer that followed did not build any anticipation, either, as it more or less confirmed my suspicion that this would be more of the same. But Lionsgate made nine Saw movies off of one film’s exquisite ROI, and they’re still trying to milk that cash cow in 2021. So why not give the Tournament a shot?
The Saw comparison is no coincidence. Escape Room: Tournament of Champions leans into its identity as a bloodless Saw clone, particularly in its final act. The elevator pitches for the two films are more or less identical: people are trapped and tested under the duress of time-controlled “puzzles” where any misstep could have deadly consequences. The major difference in the Escape Room formula is that a shadowy organization, Minos, is behind the whole endeavor, apparently selling the feeds for this deadly game. This sequel hints at various experimental games the company has put together—e.g., put six priests into an escape room together to see if faith can help them survive.
The experiment in Tournament of Champions is exactly what you might expect: survivors from previous escape rooms are brought together to compete (I guess it is a competition, as only one can survive; although, it seems impossible to finish some of these rooms solo). Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell) and Ben Miller (Logan Miller), having left the events of the first film with their lives, are seeking out the organization which wronged them, hoping to amass enough evidence to bring a case to the authorities. Instead, they find themselves trapped in a subway car with four others and soon realize that they have been roped back into Minos’ nefarious game.
I was not a massive fan of Escape Room, but I said at the time that it cleared the low bar set by the January horror/thrillers of recent years. And much of my thoughts on that film transfer to this sequel. The characters in the first film were, at best, cliches. The characters in Tournament are not even that; the new players have anywhere from 0-2 attributes and receive no development as the film progresses. The returning characters are given some emotional depth (some), but none of these people rise above being literal pawns in this deadly game.
On the flip side, the premise of this series leads to some room for inventive set design and creative set pieces. I think Tournament ups the ante on the original film’s set pieces quite well, and I found one or two of them to be genuinely thrilling. So while the characters are hollow and uninteresting, the traps they find themselves in are superior to those in the previous film. For a film of this sort, the latter seems slightly more important.
In my review for Escape Room, I also mentioned how the rapid conclusion of the first film (along with its sequel-baiting coda) took the wind out of the film’s sails. This is also somewhat true of Tournament of Champions, if only because you can easily see the final “twist” coming from miles away (from the very first scene, in fact).
This is because the writing could not be less subtle. The set pieces provide enough visual engagement where you can tune out the needless dialogue, but it is nevertheless a tiring experience to listen to these characters speak. Every line of dialogue is overly explanatory, as if the film’s four screenwriters forgot somewhere in the drafting process that the audience would be able to see the action on a screen. The script is unnaturally descriptive, with characters remarking on exactly what is being shown on screen and, in most cases, repeating that information a second time. Given this is a movie about elaborate puzzles, this hand-holding can be irritating.
In the end, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions bests its predecessor by being a lot more of the same but doing it slightly better. With it being a summer release, though, one can anticipate it not replicating the first film’s success (personal anecdote: my opening night screening topped out at a whopping two admits). Even if theaters were not in the middle of a slow post-Covid recovery, I would imagine the results would have been essentially the same.
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions: B-
As always, thanks for reading!