Review of “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions”

I have never been to an escape room. I’m not the best at figuring out puzzles in videogames so I doubt I’m any better in a live action setting. Things other players pick up quickly seem to evade me. When I’m told the solution, it makes sense and is obvious, but I can’t put the pieces together in the moment. In other words, I wouldn’t live long in the world of “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” and I doubt anyone else would either as this world requires too much coincidence and good luck to be survivable. But for a sequel to a low-budget thriller, it’s not half bad…but just barely.

Zoey and Ben (Taylor Russell and Logan Miller) are trying to go on with their lives since surviving the Minos Corporation’s escape rooms. Zoey is seeing a therapist both to deal with her PTSD and to cure her fear of flying. The therapist doesn’t believe there is a Minos Corporation or their deadly escape rooms and tells Zoey she needs to put the past behind her. Zoey and Ben discovered the coordinates to the Minos Corporation in their logo and drive across the country to try and gather evidence that will bring them down and end the games. The location is what looks like an abandoned warehouse. The pair are accosted by a vagrant that steals Zoey’s necklace, a keepsake from her dead mother. Chasing the vagrant onto a subway train, he escapes, and the train begins to move. Planning to get off at the next stop, the subway car separates from the other and changes tracks. The other four people on the train are also survivors from Minos’ escape rooms and they all realize they were brought together for a tournament of champions. The subway car slams to a stop and is electrified. If they touch the polls, handles or doors, they’ll be shocked to death. They figure out the puzzle and escape, but one of the contestants is electrocuted. The remaining survivors must navigate out the next sets of escape rooms if they want to survive and so Zoey can continue her mission to stop Minos.

I liked 2019’s “Escape Room.” It had a winning cast, engaging characters and an interesting story. While the all-powerful, faceless corporation as the bad guy was old, everything else about the film was well done and entertaining. “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” sticks closely to the formula and delivers a decent sequel with a decent cast and a nearly identical story. There are fewer rooms, but they are more deadly with lasers, quicksand and raining acid. That and the introduction of a character thought to have died in the first film are about the only differences between the two films.

One would have thought the stakes in the sequel would have been amped up, and yet they are actually lowered. With a run time 10 minutes shorter than the original, “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” feels like the group of four writers ran out of ideas and gave up on the story. Wringing everything they could out of the original concept, the writing team hit a wall and stopped. Will Honley, Maria Melnik (who wrote on the original film), Daniel Tuch and Oren Uziel pull a switcheroo for the last room, making you think they have escaped when the players just found an alternate path to the next puzzle. When that plays out, the quartet decides to give the audience and Zoey a big reveal. And that leads to what appears to be a happy ending that is actually the set up for a likely third installment. Whoever writes the next film may want to consider saving the escape rooms for later in the movie and give the audience either pre-escape room flashbacks for our main characters or a time jump showing us a survivor’s post-escape room life. The ending of “…Champions” makes this unlikely, but I can dream.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is rated PG-13 for violence, terror/peril and strong language. The violence is mostly seen in flashbacks to the first film. There are moments when people are burned by lasers and acid and disappear in quicksand. One character burns her hand on a stove element but doesn’t feel it. Once character is shown being electrocuted. The subway car sequence features flashing electrical currents that may cause issues for those with light sensitive seizure disorders. Foul language is common but there is only one instance of the F-bomb.

I like “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions,” but I don’t like it as much as the first film. Catching lightning in a bottle is difficult to do a second time. The first film grossed almost $156 million worldwide on a $9 million budget. The combination of a weaker entry and a worldwide pandemic makes a similar return on the sequel’s $15 million budget seem unlikely. I also am still not a fan of the faceless conglomerate being the villain. Show us a roundtable of suits making decisions about who will be brought into the next escape rooms. Give one of them a suitable backstory to explain why this is being done. The original film’s explanation of rich people betting on the outcome is a decent start, but I think the story is helped by filling in the details of what has warped the minds that run Minos to watch young people be tortured. Since logic was one of the first losers in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” (it appears all six players got on the same subway car by chance), why not give the audience some history that makes the cruelty make some sense.

Nobody asked me and they likely won’t. Of course, I could be kidnapped, locked in a room, and forced to write the next “Escape Room” installment. I would have to write myself into corners and boxes then write my way out of them, otherwise I would be burned, shocked, poisoned and more. I can guarantee I would write a very bad movie, but it would also have more intelligence and less coincidence than this sequel.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” gets three stars out of five.

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Review of “Escape Room”

Six diverse people are invited to try out a new escape room.  Anyone that successfully solves the puzzles and gets out of the rooms will win $10,000.  Those invited are Zoey (Taylor Russell), a brilliant but introverted college student, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), a former soldier, Mike (Tyler Labine), a truck driver, Ben (Logan Miller) a grocery store clerk, Danny (Nik Dodani), a gamer and escape room groupie, and Jason (Jay Ellis), a high-powered investment broker.  These six people are faced with rooms that are trying to kill them and they must work together despite their differences.  As they struggle, they discover they are connected by tragedy.

“Escape Room” follows the formula of many low-budget horror films:  Collect a mostly no-name cast, tell a decent story, establish a hero (or heroes) and set up a sequel.  It has worked for the Blumhouse factory for their horror franchises “Insidious” and “The Purge.”  “Escape Room” does a pretty good job of introducing us to a largely unknown cast, plopping them in the middle of a deadly set of puzzle rooms they must escape from before the boobytraps are sprung that will kill them, establishing a hero from the diverse group and creating a mystery as to why they were chosen.  It is a simple but entertaining film.

It’s simple because the whole concept of “Escape Room” is to whittle the six characters down to one or two.  How that is done is the complicated part and the part that stretches credibility to the absolute max.  The puzzles are nearly impossible to figure out.  An average person in one of the rooms wouldn’t have a chance of escape.  Finding a key that’s part of a prop or a mini safe hidden in an upside-down room or figuring out the code word for a padlock based on one individual’s past feels like it is asking a lot for an audience to believe.  Some of the puzzles requires one particular person to survive from one room to the next.  What if that person doesn’t make it out of the previous room?  Is the next room changed to give the others a chance or is everyone else screwed?  That question is left up in the air, but it troubled me as the film went on.

There is also the question of who is behind all the traps and puzzles in the escape room.  As it turns out, the film falls back on the all-knowing, all-seeing, nameless, faceless corporation.  I won’t give any more away, but it’s the kind of thing we’ve seen in films like “Hostel.”  A powerful group that uses average people for their amusement.  I suppose given the political climate this might resonate with audiences, but it’s been done many times before and it struck me as a little old.

“Escape Room” works because of the ensemble cast.  No one is a standout, but no one is a weak link either.  Taylor Russell is the introverted but brilliant Zoey.  This caterpillar must be reborn as a butterfly in order for the film to succeed.  Zoey actually is transformed into a lion as she goes full action hero.  I don’t want to spoil too much of the film, but Zoey is a large reason why the film has a marginally happy ending.  Russell makes the turn from delicate flower to raging bull believable because of the logic she applies.  Again, I don’t want to spoil it, but Zoey is the true hero of “Escape Room.”

The rest of the cast plays their parts well with Logan Miller as the brooding Ben and Jay Ellis as the rich and quietly dangerous Jason as the more interesting characters.  We are given plenty of reason to dislike both of them, yet we root for them all the same.  Jason is pragmatic while Ben is emotional.  They are like fire and water, but still they compliment each other and bring their own unique strengths to the solving of the puzzles.  If this pair manages to escape, they would make a formidable pairing to go after those responsible for trying to kill them.  I’m not saying they do, but I am saying it might make for a cool sequel.

“Escape Room” is rated PG-13 for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language.  Each room is designed to kill the players.  There is fire, freezing cold, falling, poison gas, being crushed and your fellow player.  One room has a substance that causes hallucinations, leading the players to fight each other.  I don’t recall what the suggestive material was, so it couldn’t have been too suggestive.  Foul language is scattered.

“Escape Room” wants to be a franchise or at least a trilogy.  I’m not sure how they can squeeze three movies or more out of this concept.  The end of the film sets up a sequel that makes sense; however, anything after that will be stretching this idea very, very thin.  That would likely lead to diminishing box office and, eventually, a reboot.  That’s the way these things seem to go; but that’s looking way down the road.  For right now, “Escape Room” is a pretty good thriller that makes for a nice distraction in what is a dreary winter.

“Escape Room” gets four stars out of five.

This week, I’ll be reviewing “The Upside” for WIMZ.com.

Also opening this week:

A Dog’s Way Home—

Replicas—

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