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Escape Room: Tournament of Champions - Movie Review

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions - Movie Review
4 10

PLOT: After narrowly beating the odds and surviving a devious corporation's escape room, Zoey and Ben must travel to New York City to expose the villains for who they are. Unfortunately for them, they run right into a perfectly-set trap.

REVIEW: There's a scene early on in Escape Room: Tournament of Champions when one of the characters, in the middle of attempting to help their friend figure out an escape room's clue, says (this is a paraphrase), "You're assuming a lot!"

You said it. The forced participants in these Escape Room movies have to make a ton of assumptions when it comes to unlocking the clues in the torture chambers they find themselves in. It's hard enough to figure out some esoteric combination of words or numbers under the best of circumstances (especially when teamed with a handful of perfect strangers), but to do so under such physically and psychologically harrowing circumstances, such as when a room is about to catch on fire or sink into oblivion, adds quite a bit to the challenge. Yet the protagonists in Escape Room, specifically traumatized heroine Zoey, have an uncanny knack of seeing just the right clue at just the right time, even if said clue would almost literally be impossible to suss out no matter how much time you had.

Of course, we're supposed to give a movie like Escape Room the benefit of the doubt when it comes to those kinds of leaps in credibility - and I did the first time around, more or less. I'll admit to having seen the first film only a few days before the sequel, and I found it to be a rather enjoyable, if often generic and predictable, experience. (If you're keeping score, I'd probably give it a 6/10.) A hybrid of about a half dozen other franchises (Saw, Final Destination, Cube, The Hunger Games, to name the most obvious), the first movie got by on a combination of solid production design (the upside down room is brilliant) and clever direction, while a mostly agreeable cast of adult characters surely helped the cause. Unfortunately, the sequel very much goes by the "if it ain't broke" mantra that plenty of sequels before it have adhered to: there is literally nothing new to be found here, resulting in a movie that's not nearly as fun to watch as its predecessor, featuring less interesting set-pieces, tiresome characters, and an ending so unsatisfying I wanted to punch the screen.

In what feels like an unintentional homage to horror movies of the 80s, the sequel begins with a helpful "previously on" prologue that catches us up to the stakes at hand. The end of the last film saw survivors Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller) determined to expose the evil corporation that sent them into a hellish maze of diabolical escape rooms, which resulted in the deaths of four people. Meanwhile, the unseen puppet master behind the games (rather comically) vowed to get revenge on Zoey, scheming to put her on a rigged airplane (her greatest fear, having previously survived a plane crash). So we pick up right where we left off, with Zoey and Ben heading to Manhattan to find the corporation's headquarters. Soon after, in rather convenient fashion, they wind up locked in a subway car with a handful of others who, you guessed it, also happen to be survivors of their own escape room nightmares. As in Hunger Games: Catching Fire before it, the baddies have reset the rules so that their prized catch has to play the game all over again alongside other elite competitors. Indeed, we get to hear a character actually say, "So what is this, some kind of tournament of champions?!"

Usually a sequel will make things bigger and better, or try to anyway, yet everything in Escape Room: TOC feels smaller, less significant. The action here is more scrambled and impatient; director Adam Robitel, who brought some real ingenuity to the first one, seems to already have tired of the eye-rolling plot machinations of the series, delivering a serviceable job that lacks any real enthusiasm. The same could be said of the money sequences themselves, which aren't nearly as fun or intense as the first film's, while the sets aren't as visually stimulating. An electrified subway car brings some visceral thrills, but ultimately it turns out that long scenes of people running around a soundstage while screaming "here's a number!" can get awfully old, awfully quick. This is cynical moviemaking at its most brazen, with the studio trusting that their target audience will want nothing more than a glum retread of what they saw the last time. And who knows, maybe they're right.

What's most nagging about Escape Room: TOC is the sense that it doesn't for a minute trust its audience to be very bright. Over and over we have characters saying the most obvious things (usually they're offscreen; a majority of the film's dialogue was obviously recorded in an ADR booth) in hysterical voices that sap their sympathy factor right quick. We have to accept leaps in logic that are stretching it even for a PG-13 horror movie. "Trust us, this makes sense," the filmmakers seem to be saying. The final sequence of the movie contains one of those montages where we watch earlier moments play out but with new meanings assigned to them, and yet some of those moments are from scenes we literally watched minutes earlier. Thanks, movie, for flashing back to the previous sequence, I would have forgotten it otherwise. (And, without getting spoilery, the very ending of the film is outrageous in its cheapness; a completely obnoxious "you'll have to wait for the next one!" cop-out that is so unearned it's enraging.) And as an aside: For all its lack of imagination, this film still has six credited writers, a fact that is baffling to me.

The first movie's victims were flawed but intriguing, clearly wounded from past traumas and nursing grudges that made them more compelling than the usual genre fodder. This movie's new contestants are bland ciphers, which is especially curious when you consider they're supposed to be the heroes of their own movies. These people won their own Escape Room contests, so you'd think they should possess some kind of peculiar or exceptional traits, but not so much. (The closest is Rachel, played by Holland Roden, who can't feel pain, a potentially interesting characteristic that doesn't get exploited nearly enough.) And as for our returning champs, friends-without-benefits Zoey and Ben? They're still just likable enough to semi-root for, but they're going through the motions the same way everything else is. They're stuck on repeat; no longer people, but avatars in a video game.

There will be a third Escape Room, there is almost no doubt (unless this one completely bombs), and the most irritating thing about Tournament of Champions is that you probably don't even have to see it for the third one to work; you could probably skip it altogether. That's an assumption, of course, but it speaks to just how little this sequel has to offer in terms of advancing the narrative, raising the stakes, or anything other than comfortably doing the same thing over again. After only two movies, this franchise already feels completely worn out.

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions opens in theaters July 16th.

 

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