Director: Adam Robitel
Stars: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Indya Moore
I must admit I have a soft spot for Escape Room. Adam Robitel’s initial movie in this unlikely series felt like something of an underdog when it was released with little fanfare two and a half years ago. Who wanted or needed a YA Saw film? It received only a modest amount of coverage (so far as my sphere of the media snow-globe could ascertain) and it disappeared just as meekly into the general hubbub of that year’s awards season bruhaha. I only caught it later when it appeared just as unassumingly on a streaming platform.
But damn, it’s a lot of fun. Chiefly the premise is this; a group of unconnected people are lured by a mysterious company called Minos to participate in an escape room that promises a sizable cash prize. In truth, the evil corporation locks these candidates inside elaborately orchestrated death traps, recording their exploits for the viewing pleasure of their real clientele; an unseen cadre of the elite and/or obscenely wealthy. The trap rooms presented first time out were beautiful production design showcases and, in young Taylor Russell, Escape Room presented a plucky new talent to root for.
Escape Room sagged in its third act. Partly because it sidelined Russell and partly because of a labored set-up for an unconfirmed sequel. Clearly the flick put enough in the bank for Sony Pictures to roll the dice again. Tournament of Champions opens with an extensive “previously on…” recap, adding further redundancy to the first film’s limp send-off. No matter. Once this awkwardness is out of the way, Robitel gets busy moving the machinations of this erstwhile series forward again.
Survivors Zoey (Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller) travel from Chicago to New York in pursuit of the villainous Minos corp; Zoey intent on bringing them down and Ben along for the ride because she saved his life. A pickpocket lures them both onto a subway carriage that then swiftly disengages from the remainder of the train. Crashing down a branch line to a disused platform, the train car transforms into a lethal electrified escape room and we’re off again. Their cohorts in this tin can of death are also all former survivors. Rachel (Holland Roden) rhetorically asks, “What is this, a Tournament of Champions?”.
Yes, Rachel. It is.
If you’re already calculating the improbable variables involved in getting all six of these former contestants onto this specific subway train at the same time then ToC is not for you. Trap rooms aren’t the only thing that Escape Room seems intent on pilfering from Saw. ToC makes an eager grab for that series’ eagerness for happenstance and convoluted twists. And why not? The entire set-up is inherently goofy. If you’re swallowing the basic premise here then, its creatives argue, why not open wide for a lot more?
To wit, Zoey and co. must navigate an underground bank primed with body slicing lasers, a beach scene that drains like a sink and a mock-up NY intersection experiencing intermittent downpours of acid rain. And that’s not all. ToC stays on-point with the nifty production design, but goes off when it comes to making things elaborate. It’s like watching The Crystal Maze as designed by Jared Leto getting into character for Suicide Squad.
Given the go-ahead for more, more, more, Escape Room scribes Will Honley, Maria Melnik and Daniel Tuch seem eager to move beyond just one sequel. Teen franchises like The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games feel like reference points for the kind of ongoing stories aspired to here. Escape Room trades Saw‘s gratuity for a sense of quest-like adventure, with Zoey as the series’ own Katniss Everdeen.
This means a couple of things for this film in particular. One; the aforementioned twists, which are mostly welcome (one of them especially). Two; an even messier third act that, while having learned some lessons from film one, goes all-in on upscaling the reach of what may follow. The result is something just as clunky but way-more absurd. And just a little rushed, maybe because any more time spent in this section would leave audiences enough space to call time out on such nonsense.
But as I say, with this kind of candy-coloured hokum, you’re either in or you’re not. ToC is a more chaotic film that its predecessor. In upping the ante its lost a little something. Mainly coherence. But there’s still plenty of fun to be had if you give yourself over to it. This wannabe series is pure junk food, and every now and then that’s just fine.