I can understand why a studio would want to pursue a sequel to 2019’s Escape Room, you know, aside from the fact that they set it up so blatantly at the end of the film that they probably felt obligated to make one. Whether or not the movie is your cup of tea, it’s hard to say it isn’t fun or inventive or that the acting isn’t charming and sincere. It doesn’t fall too hard into cheesy territory—despite essentially just being a tamer version of Saw with six people in the grimy bathroom instead of two—and, somehow, it manages to stay human and grounded on the whole. When a group of strangers gets thrown together (and then to the wolves) in a vicious life-or-death escape room challenge, they find out one crucial thing about each other: They are all sole survivors of immense tragedy. The film’s lead, the intuitive Zoey (Taylor Russell), tells the group, “They want to see who will be the luckiest among the lucky.”
The film’s sequel, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, takes this concept to the next level by, quite literally, trapping past escape room champions (AKA victims of Minos, an underground criminal enterprise that plucks former participants from their post-escape lives and thrusts them directly back into their worst memory) in a game revival none of them are quite prepared to embark on. However, the original film continuously plays to its structural intensity, the sharpness of its transition shots and the performances of its cast—and the sequel doesn’t even try to muster up the strength to give us the same on-screen vigor.
At first, I was pretty certain that the root issue of the sequel stemmed from the fact that the majority of the actors seemed as though they were phoning it in throughout…pretty much the entire film. Obviously, crappy acting is a one-way ticket to a tough watch. But then, I was informed of an incredibly crucial fact as the credits rolled: The film was written by not one, not two, but six people. Not every movie written by more than one or two people is bad, of course, but this particular one certainly suffered from having too many cooks in the kitchen.
A lot of the dialogue was clunky and a bit unnatural, and the jokes were, on the whole, even more contrived. In comparison to the first film, that aspect was especially unfortunate; I really enjoyed the natural ease with which the characters from the original threw quips and witty jabs at one another. There was even a great One Direction joke that had me audibly chuckling. To have that effortless humor fall so flat in the second installment was one thing, but the more meaningful and emotionally-driven dialogue was also pretty hollow. The general ideas were there—catharsis, bravery, profound personal change—but the text ends up strained and forced when placed into a character’s mouth. With the funny stuff drenched in bad attempts and the poignant stuff desperately begging you to believe it, there wasn’t much for me to latch onto as a viewer that made me truly give a shit about these people, past the point that they were unjustly dying.
But at the end of the day, there were some fun aspects of the film, and that is probably the main reason why someone might end up throwing this on randomly one day while perusing the streaming apps for something mediocre-but-amusing to indulge in. The rooms themselves were mostly exciting and creative, wholly different from and yet reminiscent of the elements explored in the various rooms of the first film. And yes, the big twist in the movie’s final fifteen minutes adds a fresh layer to the world-building of the films—but it isn’t particularly unique or shocking. It shakes things up momentarily and it’s welcome…and it’s been done before. But tropes are recycled for a reason, so it certainly isn’t the worst plot decision in the horror genre.
Supporting actress Indya Moore is a standout, considering it’s pretty much only her jokes that land—which is certainly more of a testament to her ability to make the best of what she has than it is to the script. Similarly, the returning Russell is enjoyable to watch. She capitalizes on her character’s arc from meek and scared victim to hardened and strong final girl (who is, actually, stuck in perpetual victimhood), but her performance in the original packs more of a punch. It’s true, I didn’t find myself invested in the other characters like I was in Escape Room. But I did feel compelled to see them through to the end, if only for Russell’s dedication to getting her peers out alive and seeking justice for all the people who weren’t as lucky.
Sequels have a lot to prove by default, and by default I try to give them a bit more leniency. But there’s not much merit in the way Escape Room: Tournament of Champions skirts around the series’ rules and bends them out of shape, only to discard them when they matter most: In the script and story.
Director: Adam Robitel
Writers: Will Honley, Maria Melnik, Daniel Tuch, Oren Uziel, Christine Lavaf, Fritz Böhm
Stars: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Indya Moore, Holland Roden, Thomas Cocquerel, Carlito Olivero
Release Date: July 16, 2021
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer with bylines at Life & Style, In Touch Weekly, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. She spends too much time thinking about One Direction and the leftover moments writing poetry, fiction and screenplays. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET only on KPISSFM. She tweets @nikonamerica.