Escape Room: Tournament of Champions
Reviewed By D.S. Ullery
Directed by Adam Robitel
Starring Taylor Russel and Ben Miller
Running time 88minutes
I was a tremendous fan of director Adam Robitel’s surprise 2019 hit Escape Room, which proved to be a clever, engaging thriller that forced its cast to survive a series of lethal escape rooms staged by a mysterious and powerful agency calling itself Minos. That film won me over by focusing on the characters working together and using their wits to make it out of the rooms, rather than taking the Saw route and pushing elaborately gory death scenes. With the emphasis being on how the characters survived rather than setting up their gruesome demise, the film managed to invest the inevitable deaths with greater power, giving them more impact. Despite stumbling in the third act with a series of false endings, the movie was extremely entertaining and ended up as one of my favorite releases of that year.
When the sequel was officially announced I was excited, but also wary as any fan of the horror genre knows, sequels – even ones as obviously set up as this one – have a tendency to disappoint across the board. They often fail to add anything to the mythos of a franchise, frequently making the error of retreading what we’ve already seen, resulting in a diminished experience.
Fortunately, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions avoids falling into that trap (pun intended). This tight, ferocious sequel hits the ground running and doesn’t let up. At a slim 88 minutes, it tells a solid story and moves with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine.
The film picks up where the original left off, literally offering viewers a recap of the previous events before landing on Zoey (the enchanting and likeable Taylor Russel, who again shines like a star in this heroic, courageous role), who is in therapy to deal with the loss and suffering Minos caused.
After a session with her doctor finds her re-committing to tracking down Minos and exposing what they’ve been doing, Zoey enlists fellows survivor Ben (a returning Logan Miler, as sarcastic and likeable as the last time we saw him) to travel with her to New York to visit a location she’s tracked down using coordinates embedded in the Minos symbol.
The intrepid pair arrive, find the building and are accosted by a stranger who snatches Zoey’s bag. They give chase and end up on a subway car, where Zoey begins to pick up a strange vibe about the other passengers. Things begin to go sideways in a terrifyingly familiar way and quickly everyone discovers they are in another Minos escape room. Even more frightening is the revelation each of them are survivors of a previous game, just like Zoe and Ben, all having apparently been brought together by Minos to see who will win what one character labels a “contest of champions”.
Director Adam Robitel knows exactly what he’s doing this second time around and paces the film with a seasoned assurance across a larger canvas. This movie moves with confidence, putting its cast through a series of increasingly diabolical rooms, vividly brought to life by the superb production design. Among the games this round we get acid rain, deadly lasers and crackling arcs of electricity and it is absolutely dazzling to behold (one sequence involving a beach and a lighthouse is particularly clever and intense)
The cast is excellent, just like the last time. Russel and Miller are superb and continue to be a compelling team worth cheering for. There’s a natural chemistry between the two and the friendship they share onscreen seems genuine and unforced. The newcomers are also entertaining to watch, particularly Holland Roden as Rachel, a woman about whom we eventually learn some very interesting facts.
While all of those elements contribute to making this sequel work as well as it does, the real reason I enjoyed Tournament of Champions so much is the same as why I enjoyed its predecessor: The focus here is again on the characters and how they work together. The concept of them all being champions isn’t a mere hook, either. Establishing early on these characters were smart and strong enough to survive all of this before makes it easier to accept they are capable of solving some of the riddles they’re presented as quickly as they manage. After all, these are the best. It wouldn’t make sense to repeat the original and have them stumbling around as they figure out what’s going on. The film benefits from this decision, allowing it to get to the core action fairly quickly without sacrificing common sense.
Even better, this sequel actually expands the lore. I’ve read a series of reviews claiming this movie breaks its own rules but that’s inaccurate. The rules are not broken, rather our understanding of them is altered through a series of effective, genuinely surprising twists. Revelations are introduced regarding the real nature of what Minos is doing. These new developments are handled well and add a welcome layer to the story.
The movie ends on a cliffhanger, setting up a third film. As a rule, cliffhangers tend to piss me off a bit – I say make the story self-contained whenever possible – but this one fits so perfectly with the tone and theme of the franchise so far that it worked for me.
One thing I wasn’t a big fan of, though (and this is something the original was also guilty of) is the tendency of characters to shout out what they’re seeing or what’s happening right in front of our eyes. It doesn’t ruin the film or detract from the suspense, but there’s no need to have a cast member yell something like “Hey, the car door just opened” when everyone – the audience included – clearly saw the damned car door open. One hopes Robitel and his writers stop doing this in the third film.
That quibble aside, I can enthusiastically report I enjoyed Escape Room: Tournament of Champions every bit as much as I did the original. While I wouldn’t say it’s a better film, I do think it’s equally entertaining and well-crafted. The Escape Room series is rapidly becoming my favorite new film property. What arrived a few years ago as something horror fans derisively labelled “Saw Lite for tweens” (Another inaccuracy – these are not kids movies. This new one, in particular, boasts some legitimately gruesome deaths. They’re just not gory.) has developed its own identity as it continues to weave its wickedly absorbing narrative.
I sincerely hope this does well enough at the box office to warrant proceeding with that third film. That may be the greatest praise I can give Escape Room: Tournament of Champions: It had this fan exiting the theatre already wanting more.
I think fans of the original will love this as much as I did. I also strongly recommend seeing it on the big screen, where those new rooms are a truly spectacular experience.
**** out of ***** Like its predecessor, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is a clever, fast-paced blast of suspenseful horror fun.
D. S. Ullery is a cartoonist and an author of short Horror fiction. He’s published two single-author collections and his ongoing comic panel Goulash can be found on Webtoons Canvas. An Affiliate Member of the Horror Writers Association, D.S. resides in South Florida, where he shares an apartment with a reasonably unstable feline named Jason, a black cat born on Friday the 13th.
You can read D.S’s ongoing comedy/horror comic series Goulash HERE
You can buy Highway 181, Duane’s most recent horror collection HERE