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Escape Room: Tournament of Champions review: horror that can’t escape its flaws

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A friend of mine once played a drinking game with Christopher Nolan’s 2000 reverse-order mystery movie Memento, where he would pause the movie at the start of each scene, and a group of friends who’d never seen it would try to guess exactly what would happen next. No one was ever right, but whoever got closest would be spared a drink. This seems like the ideal way to watch 2019’s Escape Room, a relentlessly enjoyable movie about people trying to survive a series of deadly escape rooms. The movie is full of puzzles for viewers to guess along with, and while they may never anticipate the solutions, there are always enough clues to make guessing fun. So the newly released sequel, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, seemed like the perfect opportunity for smarter contestants and more devious traps. Instead, the sequel abandons clever mysteries in favor of more straightforward action-horror, losing some of what made the original special in the process.

Tournament of Champions follows Zoey (Waves’ Taylor Russell, the brightest and most charming actor in the movie) and Ben (Love, Simon’s Logan Miller), two surviving characters from the original movie. The pair travel to New York to confront Minos, the company behind the escape rooms. But they’re soon lured into another set of deviously designed rooms, where they’re joined by other survivors from previous games for a “tournament of champions.”

The characters of Escape Room: Tournament of Champions inside the beach room

Image: Sony Pictures

The rooms these characters are trapped in are the real stars of this series. In the first movie, director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key), who returned for this sequel, makes the introduction of each room special. Characters are carefully choreographed around the rooms, offering a comprehensive tour of all the clues and red herrings, so the audience can understand all the ways the situation changes as each clever and complicated puzzle progresses. Each new shot feels like an invitation to speculate on what might happen next.

In Tournament of Champions, these excellent introductions are gone, in favor of more action sequences at the end of each room. To Robitel’s credit, these scenes are genuinely exciting. The action in the original movie was often stiff and awkward, but the second movie is full of unnerving, frenetic scenes that feel like they belong in an action-horror version of Final Destination.

But these scenes come at a serious cost. With most of the time in each room spent on action, the puzzles themselves often feel flat and underdeveloped. It’s hard to recapture the fun of the first movie’s guessing game when you don’t understand the space or have access to the clues Tournament of Champions’ characters are exploring. Worse still, the puzzles all have simple solutions, in order to leave more time for those action scenes. And when characters die because they can’t solve simple puzzles, the horror and tension the movie’s trying to create immediately evaporates.

The lackluster puzzles are a disservice to the movie’s whole premise. These characters are supposed to be former winners of Minos’ twisted game, but with puzzles as dull as “use a metal detector to find metal on a beach,” it’s hard to make the players navigating them seem clever. That’s not even really a puzzle, it’s just performing a leisurely hobby under increased pressure.

Two characters from Escape Room: Tournament of Champions assemble a metal detector

Image: Sony Pictures

Tournament of Champions never even pretends to invest in its characters’ identities, past giving them first names and maybe one fact about each character. It’s clear that they’re only present so they can die. But engaging with doomed people is part of the process that gives horror movies some sense of stakes or thrills. If Tournament of Champions is going to lean into the horror, it might as well lean all the way in. Watching the death of a character we care about even a little is far more emotionally effective than just checking another name off a list.

This weird lack of backstory even manages to derail the movie’s best sequence. The scene is an escape room set in a bank lobby with a massive checkerboard floor and a vault door opposite the entrance. It’s a perfect setting for a heist or an escape room, and it’s a bit of both. The characters have to navigate the squares on the floor, and a false step will fill the entire room with deadly lasers. To find the path, they have to use clues from safety-deposit boxes, hidden keys, maps, chess allusions, and tricky wordplay riddles. It’s the only sequence in the movie that melds action and puzzles, and it’s easily the most entertaining part.

Zoey from Escape Room: Tournament of Champions jumps through a high-security laser grid

Image: Sony Pictures

Except that halfway through, Nate the priest (there’s that name-plus-factoid characterization) decides he no longer wants to solve the puzzle, and would rather trust his faith. So Nate (Thomas Cocquerel) starts trampling across the room with reckless abandon. It’s a strange, unnerving moment that could have been effective, if it was at all clear why he’s ignoring the threats and abandoning the movie’s premise. Is he giving himself up? Was blind faith the way he won Minos’ game the first time around? Who knows!

In many ways, Tournament of Champions feels like the newly minted Escape Room franchise coming back to earth. The first movie was a tonal miracle, tense and exciting while simultaneously being silly and earnest. Even when the movie is clearly borrowing inspiration from the long-running, ridiculously dense Saw series, it isn’t parody, it’s admiration. Escape Room is like a loving kid brother who can’t help but idolize his older burnout sibling.

Tournament of Champions never finds this same comfortable intersection. It’s more like an imitation of other horror movies than a loving twist on their format. The movie’s puzzles seem more focused on killing the characters than on inviting them to test their skills in exciting ways. Arbitrary and messy death in a horror film isn’t necessarily a bad thing — but it is something a hundred other movies have done better, especially since the methods of death here are just as boring as the puzzles that cause them.

While an Escape Room drinking game could be about guessing the solutions to each new trap, Tournament of Champions only invites the usual horror standby, with players taking a shot every time a character dies. Both those games could be fun, in their own ways. But at least the first Escape Room gives the audience a thrilling movie to remember, more than they remember what they were drinking.

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions premieres in theaters on July 16.

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Kin Abelle Flats
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