By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Taylor Russell, Logan Miller and Indya Moore
Directed by Adam Robitel
Written by Will Honley, Maria Melnik, Daniel Tuch and Oren Uziel
This could conceivably be a very easy one to write: Simply rerun my review of the original ESCAPE ROOM, change a bunch of the names and downgrade my opinion a couple of notches. TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS is largely a rehash of that sleeper hit, ignoring the potential suggested by its subtitle.
The “champions” in this sequel are six survivors of past deadly escape rooms, forced by the shadowy, devious and apparently ubiquitous Minos corporation back into another series of elaborate big-scale traps. Two of them are the first ESCAPE ROOM’s Zoey (Taylor Russell), who’s still in therapy over her prior experience, and Ben (Logan Miller), whose life she saved during that initial gauntlet. Thus, when Zoey becomes determined to track down and hopefully take down Minos, Ben agrees to join her, and since she’s understandably anxious about flying, they embark on a road trip to (not filmed in) New York City, where she believes the company is headquartered. They’re soon lured into another deadly setpiece with four other people–Brianna (Indya Moore), Rachel (Holland Roden), Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel) and Theo (Carlito Olivero)–whom they quickly discover have similar histories, and have to uncover cryptic clues to attempt to survive all over again.
There’s a lot of “all over again” in ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS, despite the four screenplay writers listed above, plus Christine Lavaf and WILDLING writer/director Fritz Böhm receiving story credit. The idea of escape-room veterans being thrown together for another ordeal barely informs the proceedings, as they never meaningfully draw on their past experiences to address their current plight. Moments that promise to lead in interesting new directions come to naught: Two of the survivors find a way out of one of the rooms, another takes a different route, and…they all wind up in the same place anyway. And the initial suggestion that we’ll learn more about how and why Minos operates goes unfulfilled. On only its second film, ESCAPE ROOM is falling into a trap of its own, similar to its Sony stablemate RESIDENT EVIL franchise: Lots of stuff has happened by the end of this new entry, but the overarching plot hasn’t advanced in any way.
On its own terms, TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS has been vigorously directed by returning Adam Robitel, with energetic but always coherent editing by Steven Mirkovich and Peter Pav and an aggressive score by Brian Tyler and John Carey. You certainly can’t say the movie ever gets dull, but there’s a sameness to its freneticism after a while despite the individually detailed environments created by production designer Edward Thomas. It quickly comes to feel like anything that might slow the movie down–such as intricate plotting or characterizations beyond surface-level–got deleted. (Not to mention that ORPHAN and THE HUNGER GAMES’ Isabelle Fuhrman, credited as part of the cast before and during production, is nowhere to be found in the final film.)
The actors do what they can, but only Russell, projecting intelligence through Zoey’s trauma and desperation, really has anything to play here. Much of the movie has the dwindling cast yelling at each other, describing what’s going on right in front of them or urging their fellow “players” to hurry up before they all die. What’s missing is involvement with their attempts to figure their way out of their perilous situations, since the movie largely neglects the audience the thrill of puzzling out the solutions along with them. Too much of the setpieces are dependent on the characters digging up found objects that (sometimes literally) hold the key to getting to the next level. There’s one major twist late in the game that is resolved and dispensed with all too quickly as TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS races toward its finale–and then it suddenly stops with (surprise!) a blatant setup for yet another sequel.