Escape Room: Tournament of Champions rides the same strengths of the original, resulting in a film that is a bit spare but still a feat of Hollywood craftmanship.
When we last saw Taylor Russell’s Zoe and Logan Miller’s Ben, they had, in defiance of their captors, broke free of the lethal escape room in which they had been imprisoned with four others, forced to compete for their lives. The conclusion of the first Escape Room opened up the film’s world, with Russell and Miller’s characters getting a glimpse behind the curtain at the shadowy organization of billionaires who masterminded their deadly competition, and now the second film in this apparent franchise, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, brings the two leads back together in the hopes of putting an end to all this escape room-related treachery.
Released in the U.S. on the first weekend of 2019, the first film was something of a surprise success, ultimately pulling in $155 million on a $9 million budget — largely attributable to a lack of competition at the box office that time of year probably, but Escape Room wasn’t without its charms, a glossy B-movie clearly informed by the Blumhouse model, with its own distinct rhythm and pace provided by legendary action/horror editor Steve Mirkovich (Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, Broken Arrow). Essentially a more convoluted, less gory take on Saw, the film’s six-person ensemble and sprawling, perpetually shifting death traps offered Mirkovich prime opportunity to flex his cross-cutting expertise, his work elevating the material to genuinely tense, shocking heights in moments.
All of this is basically true of Escape Room: Tournament of Champions as well, with Mirkovich returning as editor along with most of the production team from the first film. This includes horror blockbuster specialist Adam Robitel, the film’s director, who while maybe not an auteur, has proven himself savvy at assembling crew and cast alike. Most of the characters from the first entry having been killed off (sorry to lose Jay Ellis’ villainous day trader), Robitel fills out this tournament of champions with actors Indya Moore, Holland Roden, and Thomas Cocquerel, as other escape room survivors (there are a whole national network of these things) who, along with the aforementioned Russell and Miller, must now solve a new set of puzzles designed to maim and kill them for the amusement of anonymous rich people. At a lean 88 minutes, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions chooses to reserve most of its runtime for escape room action and little else; character development is not a thing for anyone but the leads, and any sort of class critique implied by the central conflict is taken no further than that (there’s some Haneke-lite attempts to indict the audience for their media consumption habits as well, but it’s mostly jokey and vague). Which is probably fine and good, the appeal of this sort of genre fiction is often its ability to make such points in the bluntest fashion, and Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is not a film that actually needs to belabor its wealth gap metaphor, though at times the efficiency of this script crosses over into airiness, perhaps a bit too pared-back, ultimately. This is most egregious in the plotting, which takes its characters back to square one by the film’s conclusion in an obvious move to pad out the franchise, but simultaneously, the Escape Room mythos isn’t really the main draw here. The film’s big selling point — escape rooms — are even more thrilling this time around, excellent Hollywood set design kept in focus by Mirkovich’s quick, legible cuts, though indeed, there’s little else of note around these setpieces. Possibly too spare a picture for some, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is at least a refreshing, pulpy break from the tedium of the overlong summer blockbuster; and propped up by legitimate cinematic craftsmanship, at that!