Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS
Rated PG-13, 88 minutes
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Over the years, there’ve been a few successful films that capitalize on a trend puncturing the pop culture zeitgeist. For example, Martha Coolidge’s VALLEY GIRL was created as a teensploitation film to pay tribute to valley girl fad inspired by Frank and Moon Unit Zappa’s song of the same name. Director Adam Robitel’s ESCAPE ROOM was birthed after the titular interactive adventures were popularized. And while the heat surrounding that group activity has waned (thanks mostly to the pandemic), the cinematic franchise continues to flourish, transcending the trend with its super fun sequel, ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS. This gripping, nerve-shredding follow-up is full of innovative twists and turns.
Similar to the original, things get off to a bit of a rocky start. There’s a montage of what previously took place (a la the “Previously on LOST” – style announcement), rather than solely letting the new narrative show how this burdensome ordeal integrates into the characters’ lives. Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller) are suffering from on-going PTSD courtesy of the traumatic events inflicted on them as the winners of their deadly Escape Room games. While Zoey’s sought intensive therapy, Ben’s chosen to move on without any professional help. But things change for the pair after she pieces together vital clues left behind by the gamemaster about Minos, the evil corporation behind the high-stakes games.
Determined to topple the nefarious organization, the duo hit the road, winding up in New York City at the coordinates indicated. The building appears abandoned, but this discovery only gives Ben and Zoey an entry point into a new series of puzzle rooms. This time the sickos at Minos have assembled a cadre of winners from other themed escape rooms – all of whom bear physical and emotional scarring. They include lapsed man of faith Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel), travel influencer Brianna (Indya Moore), tough-but-caring Theo (Carlito Olivero), and punk rock caretaker Rachel (Holland Roden). It’s now up to these 6 smarties to overcome the obstacles posed by the rooms, each increasing in intensity, picking off the players one by one.
Once again, character development in this sequel is blessedly economical. Robitel, along with screenwriters Will Honley, Maria Melnik, Daniel Tuch and Oren Uziel (working from a story by Christine Lavaf and Fritz Böhm), get us to care about these characters in a short amount of time, keeping their backstories lean and their plights understandable. This intelligent efficiency is further applied to the pacing of the picture, which ratchets up tension in an unrelenting fashion once the 6 unwitting victims step into their first puzzle – an electrified, runaway subway car – and goes non-stop until the last is solved. Themes revolving around free will, grief and guilt grow deeper and take root. World-building is expanded in an ingenious manner, tying each of the rooms together as greater parts of one singular tale. This bequeaths the picture with subtle meta-commentary on storytelling.
Just like any great sequel, the action-driven spectacle has gotten bigger, more immersive and more intense. The rooms are far more complicated; however, they’re brilliantly not convoluted. Production designer Edward Thomas, cinematographer Marc Spicer and editors Steve Mirkovich and Peter Pav bestow the big set pieces with a gorgeous razzle-dazzle of aesthetics and electricity. The practicality of their design makes the scenarios look and feel real: The art deco bank, the post-nuclear 50s-style beach, and the acidic New York City street make for fun kills, but also propel the story along in unique, exciting ways, funneling into the larger tale the puzzlemaster is telling.
Unfortunately, this second iteration is not without some missteps. There’s one big cheat the filmmakers do during the climax that comes across as a cheap trick and significantly alters the rules of the world they’ve taken great care to set up. This decision directly impacts and informs the narrative’s stakes. Not only that, on that whole, this feels like an interstitial second chapter. The goalposts only move slightly. It extends the protagonists’ escalating pursuit, but acts as an in-between placeholder for a trilogy – one we can only hope will materialize.
While this may not be without its faults, it’s absolutely perfect escapism. It’ll leave your palms sweaty and your butt on the edge of your seat as you piece together the life-or-death puzzles. It’s we who are the champions as this psychologically taut horror series continues to deliver thrills and chills.
ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS opens in theaters on July 16.