Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021)
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Written by: Christine Lavaf, Daniel Tuch, Fritz Böhm, Maria Melnik, Oren Uziel, Will Honley
Starring: Deborah Ann Woll, Logan Miller, Taylor Russell, Thomas Cocquerel
IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 88 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
After finding coordinates to its New York City-based headquarters, Sole survivors of a series of deadly escape rooms Zoey Davis and Ben Miller decide to confront the shadowy Minos Corporation who was behind the terrible ordeal they were put through, broadcasting their torment for the entertainment of online punters. However, the find the place derelict and a tramp steals Zoey’s necklace. When he and Ben give chase, they find themselves trapped in an electrified underground train carriage with four others who are also survivors of previous Minos escape rooms. The group realises they have to collect subway tokens to escape the train as the electrification increases. It’s the Champions League of escape artists, so the trails are far harder than before….
I reckon around three quarters of horror films have one. What am I talking about? The ‘stupid moment’, the moment when you go “Oh for goodness sake” or “Come on!” and are taken out of the film because it’s so – well – stupid. Of course some horror films have far more of these than one, and films of all genres contain them, but for some reason they seem to stick out in horror most, possibly because the emotion that you momentarily lose is often fear, one of the strongest and most intense emotions that there is, and it’s therefore both hugely jarring and hugely disappointing when something idiotic suddenly happens. Escape Room had the ‘hot room’ scene, where the characters had to find a way to get out of a room which was getting hotter and hotter, yet none of them removed any clothes, not even the person who was wearing a jumper. The scene was so poorly done that it didn’t look like much sweat was being produced. The sequel has a scene where acid rain is falling and melting everything. It’s quite frightening and we really feel worried for the characters even though they’ve reached shelter until one of them is able to stand in the open air with just an umbrella for protection. Now I don’t know much about acid rain but, even if it’s unable to destroy the umbrella, some of it would have certainly got to the lower, less protected parts of this person’s body.
Yet perhaps I shouldn’t have began this review with something negative. Maybe this was partly down to low expectations, me probably being the HCF critic who most prefers the old over the new, but Escape Room was a much better diversion than it maybe had a right to be; generally well staged, well shot and even inventive, certainly doing well out of its central idea. Even if it didn’t seem to know how to end, I couldn’t wait to rejoin Zoey and Ben on that plane on her mission to wreck vengeance on this big evil corporation, even though I’m sure many wondered what exactly they were going to be able to do, seeing how clever and powerful Minos are, a company that seemed to be even controlling the plane. Escape Room: Tournament Of Champions is basically more of the same; a bit more absurd and at the same time a bit more frightening, but basically the same thing all over again. That’s all well and good, with director Adam Robitel retaining his sharp visual sense to make these innocuous-looking escape rooms sinister even before bad stuff begins to happen in them, and a pace that speeds by so fast that only afterwards do you really question how unbelievable so much of it is, especially how Minos seems to have so much control, power, ingenuity, money and real estate – actually maybe it’s not that unbelievable after all. Yet the nature of the film means that we’re still also allowed to get some actual scenes rather than what seem like tiny portions of scenes which is what we sometimes have these days, the makers obviously thinking that if a film has people talking for more than twenty seconds than the people watching it will get bored and check their phones. And the story line ends up being a bit stronger than before, even if its emotionally involving potential isn’t capitalised on and we finish with another set up for the next film – which by now we sort of expect so we shouldn’t really mind!
After a bit of recapping which I often think is a good idea if you haven’t seen the previous film since the cinema, we expect to join Zoey and Ben on the plane, the film thereby hitting the ground running, but instead it backtracks to presumably a few weeks before with Zoey seeing a therapist to move on from her trauma and to get over her aerophobia which we don’t know if she suffered from before or developed it since her last ordeal. There’s some really blatant foreshadowing here; I’m not going to describe the details, but it may be so bleeding obvious to you that you may wonder if it was intended as misdirection. Zoey and Ben set off, but now in a car because she still doesn’t want to fly. So why did we see them in the plane at the end of film number one? Were we not supposed to remember that? Are we supposed to be that flipping stupid!? As I paused for a moment writing this review, I wondered if I should rewrite my first paragraph saying that this film actually contains not one but two really stupid moments, until it came to me that maybe our four screenwriters Will Honley, Maria Melnik, Daniel Tuch and Oren Uzie were really being clever and that the ending of the first film was actually a nightmare. It possibly makes sense seeing as we have a nightmare scene early on in this film where a room falling in on somebody ends when the person dreaming it wakes up. So I’m going to give our writers the benefit of the doubt here, though I maybe shouldn’t. The pair chase this thief onto a train, and their carriage separates from the rest of the train and is redirected to a remote station. The train seals Zoey, Ben, and other passengers Rachel, Brianna, Nathan, and Theom, all previous escapees, inside. One of the group is killed while the others manage to escape. It’s a really intense scene.
As the group rest, Nathan reveals his escape room group were all priests, Brianna’s were all influencers and Rachel’s consisted of people who didn’t feel physical pain. But we don’t really get to know these other people at all before it’s on to the next escape room. The first film was quite good at quickly presenting characters who had specific skills which we hope will come in handy, but this one doesn’t really do that. But it’s nice to see Taylor Russell and Logan Miller return, the two having an easy chemistry and Russell being one of the likable horror heroines in a while, though something’s slightly off here; she sometimes seems a bit dim, especially towards the end when she doesn’t cotton to what most of us have already picked upon, and that’s a shame seeing as she’s so intelligent elsewhere. In fact too many of the scenes in the rooms have people telling others to listen to her while she solves almost everything; perhaps Minos should have put her in her own, even more difficult, escape rooms. It’s probably not ruining things to tell you that a third character from two years before returns, nor is it probably not ruining things to tell you that you may be suspicious of said person immediately. None of the new cast members make much of an impression, though that would be hard anyway seeing they seem to have been asked to mumble and shout a lot, and even describe everything that they see. One contestant who’s quite clearly trapped inside a cage cries out “This is a cage”! FFS! We really do live in the age of dumbing down. This can also be seen by much of the puzzle solving which is often as simplistic and/or convenient as possible.
Yet there’s still a surprising amount of excitement in the room sequences, the tensest perhaps involving a laser security system which recalls similarly edge of seat heist movie sequences. It shouldn’t really be possible for the audience to get invested because we’re never put in the shoes of the contestants. I’ve never actually been in an escape room, but I know that when you’re in one you try to figure out a means of escape by looking around. Cinematic storytelling can’t really do this though, unless we continually adopt the point of view of one or more of the characters, and is only able to give you one piece of information at a time. This means that means we’re never really able to figure out the rooms along with our protagonists, leaving us to simply watch them as they look around and work things out for themselves, the camera then cutting to something as soon as they notice it. Yet the tension that’s wrought from something that’s as fundamentally simple as human error is admirable. Forward-thinking doesn’t necessarily guarantee success because it’s possible that you can move slower than you need to or get yourself to a place from where you can’t move out of. Missing a step may not just endanger yourself but also others. While if anything the deaths are even tamer, there’s a crueler, more downbeat, element vibe here, with a feeling of seemingly little to no hope for the players even really early on. Giving them more time to survive and escape in the first film meant that things could build more meticulously and we got more of a sense of the rooms, but the way it’s all time limited here and forces them to progress, no matter how many die, has its own rewards, even if the characters only sometimes react to deaths in a realistic fashion. And then, just as before, we get a sort of aftermath for the survivor or survivors, then a twist, though of course it may not come across ass a twist to you unless you really haven’t been paying attention at all.
The hectic pacing means that we lose out on little character moments like we had before, except for one that’s a major revelation which leads to a decent scene between two people, though despite strong acting from both participating cast members it could have been even better and had more of a payoff. The camerawork is a little more frantic but not unpleasantly so, cinematographer Marc Spicer providing a few good visual conceits; especially good is when our group enter what initially looks to them and us like a real beach, sea and sky, before the focus changes to reveal the artifice of much of what’s around them. Much of Brian Tyler’s electronic score is par for the course for these things, but a techno beat can’t help but add energy to already frenzied moments even if it feels a tad too upbeat. Escape Room: Tournament does contain much to criticise, yet against the odds its formula still basically works and is even oddly refreshing because it doesn’t hinge on graphic death scenes [not that I’m against those but it’s nice to have a change now and then]. I’m sure the third of what will probably form a trilogy will just give us more games, then a pretense at a conclusion before yet another twist at the end. And I’d be okay with that. However, I’d like to learn much more about Minos than we probably will have done; how it came to be, its customers etc. There’s a really interesting story in that.