2019‘s “Escape Room” was a movie built on a catchy premise but that eventually ran out of gas and ended with one of the most absurd and hard-to-swallow cliffhangers I’ve seen. But with a $9 million budget next to a $156 million box office take, it’s safe to say that green-lighting a sequel was a pretty easy call for Sony Pictures. This time around the budget gets bumped up to $15 million which the movie could reasonably make back during its opening week. Then again, once people get wind of how bad of a follow-up this is, all bets are off.
“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” was one of the many movies delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It finally comes out at a near perfect time; after anticipated blockbusters like “A Quiet Place Part II”, “Fast & Furious 9”, and “Black Widow” have eased many anxious moviegoers back into theaters. Obviously the “Escape Room” movies don’t have the pull of those big-budget franchise films, but you still expect decent numbers. But then I saw the movie.
Its laughably bad title aside, “Tournament of Champions” didn’t set especially high expectations. The trailers advertised more of the same which would probably be enough to entice fans of the first movie. But where the 2019 film at least kept your interest most of the way, it’s sequel had me restless by the 15-minute mark and ready to check out at 30. That’s because this thing is inferior to the first film in every way imaginable which is stunning considering it didn’t have a particularly high bar to reach.
Something you’ll quickly notice is the shockingly shallow story that pretends to be interested in the cliffhanger ending of its predecessor but then completely tosses it aside within the first few minutes. We get a brief reintroduction to Zoe (played by the super soft-spoken Taylor Russell) who’s in therapy following the events of the first movie and is still determined to take down Minos, the shadowy corporation revealed to be behind the escape rooms. In case you need a refresher, Minos creates these elaborate (and potentially lethal) puzzle rooms and fills them with unsuspecting victims all for the viewing pleasure of their high-paying clients.
Considering that was the big reveal from the 2019 flick, you would expect the sequel to pick up that plot line and expand on it. Instead the filmmakers are content with just rehashing the previous film’s blueprint – toss people into a new escape room, watch them frantically try to solve a puzzle that opens the exit, someone probably dies, then it’s off to the next room, rinse-and-repeat. That’s this movie in its entirety. Zoe and her manic tag-along friend and fellow survivor Ben (Logan Miller) drive from Chicago to Manhattan to gather proof of Minos’ existence. But within minutes they find themselves lured back into the game, this time with new and far more deadly puzzles.
There are a few new characters who join Zoe and Ben, all previous escape room survivors. There’s a travel blogger, an alcoholic priest, a meathead, and a woman who can’t feel physical pain. Don’t worry about their names because they’re only characters in the literal sense. Nothing about any of them is remotely interesting. There’s no charisma, no discernible personalities, no depth. They just panic, scream at each other, and somehow still manage to solve these convoluted puzzles just in the nick of time. Sure some will die, but their deaths have no impact whatsoever. In fact, some are so freaking annoying I found myself rooting for their demise (sorry Ben).
One of the only genuine surprises with “Tournament of Champions” is that it actually has four screenwriting credits. That’s pretty amazing considering how little there is in terms of story. Even worse, it doesn’t move anything forward. No big revelations, not even new information worth noting. Just more escape rooms, this time with FAR less compelling players. Sure, the rooms are bigger and more intricate and the production design is pretty impressive. We get an electrified subway car, an Art Deco bank with a deadly laser grid, a miniature beach, etc. But with more complex rooms comes more complex solutions and the amount of conveniences and wild pin-point guesswork used to solve them is unintentionally hilarious (my favorite may be when one character enters a new room for the first time and states “There’s a refrigerator. I bet it’s our exit.”).
If you’re okay with watching a bland group of strangers run around and solve puzzles with some dying in various unimaginative ways, then “Tournament of Champions” may have enough to keep your attention. If you’re looking for a good story, compelling characters, or any reason to care, then you’re probably not going to find it here. Not even a ludicrous plot twist (if that’s what you want to call it) can add a charge to the mostly lifeless story. And that gets back to the biggest frustration. These movies have hinted at a deeper conspiracy and a potentially broader threat. That could be interesting. But at some point you have to start answering the many questions you raise. Then again, another $150 million at the box office could easily prove otherwise. “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is now showing in theaters.