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After years and years of training, cinephiles have been conditioned to be wary of any film released in the earliest weeks of January – but it was in that atmosphere that Adam Robitel’s Escape Room managed to sincerely surprise when it arrived back in early 2019. A cinematic take on a popular bit of modern interactive entertainment, the movie has enough twists and tricks to be consistently engaging, albeit while never being able to shake its “PG-13 Saw/Cube” label. Its modest success was ultimately indicative of its modest quality, finding an audience and inspiring the development of a sequel, and that has brought us to Escape Room: Tournament Of Champions: a follow-up that captures enough of the spirit of the original to be enjoyable, but also doesn’t have all of the pieces to come together quite as well.

The new movie is structurally almost identical to its predecessor, following a group of protagonists as they work together to survive while solving a series of deadly puzzles, and once again audiences are provided with exciting set pieces and unexpected developments. The film clearly recognizes what people appreciated about the first. What undercuts it is that the ensemble of returning winners as a group dynamic proves to be an idea much thinner than the collection of lone survivors in Escape Room, which has the side effect of generating less interesting and exciting characters who don’t quite earn the same level of emotional investment. The result is that Escape Room: Tournament Of Champions plays as a worthy sequel, but also a less satisfying experience.

Opening with a recap sequence that is unabashedly network television-esque – taking an efficient/lazy end run around hefty exposition – the follow-up catches up with Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell) as she continues to struggle in the aftermath of her experience in the first movie. She still has the support of fellow survivor Ben Miller (Logan Miller), but she can’t convince anyone she meets about the existence of the sinister organization Minos and their orchestration of homicidal escape rooms. And while she has the coordinates of what she believes to be Minos’ New York headquarters, discovered by deconstructing their logo, her fear of flying holds her back from making the trip.

Eventually Zoey and Ben decide to road trip it to New York – but what they discover when they get to the Big Apple is essentially their worst nightmare. Not only is the suspected Minos headquarters completely abandoned, but the duo get lured into a trap that sees them once again playing the organization’s sick game. This time around, as the Tournament Of Champions subtitle implies, the other players they are grouped with are all competitors who also managed to survive Minos’ killer escape rooms, including social media influencer Brianna (Indya Moore), former priest Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel) and the mysterious Theo (Carlito Olivero) and Rachel (Holland Roden).

The ‘Tournament Of Champions’ approach in Escape Room 2 has big benefits, but also issues the sequel can’t surmount.

It’s the job of any second chapter to “yes, and…” its predecessor, and Escape Room: Tournament Of Champions actually makes a smart move right off the bat with its base premise. In addition to manufacturing a logical way to bring Zoey and Ben back into an escape room that is easily developed as a larger theme for an ensemble, the idea also allows the movie to only look forward and not backward. Far too often sequels feel obligated to include a character who has no idea what’s going on, giving the established heroes free reign to directly explain the circumstances to them (and, by extension, the audience), but this one doesn’t bother and is all the better for it. The film never feels bogged down by exposition, and also avoids a repeat of both the emotional arcs in the original and the journey for the protagonists to fully understand the stakes.

Those are great benefits, but the premise also has its issues, and they do take a toll on the film. The most significant is that Escape Room: Tournament Of Champions doesn’t have the same kind of opportunities to invest in its characters. The fact that we know going in what connects all of the main players takes a key mystery factor away from the plot, but, more importantly, because Brianna, Nathan, Theo and Rachel are all primarily defined by their past escape room experiences, the sequel doesn’t provide them with the same kind of depth that their predecessors got. The first movie used flashbacks and hyper-personal Easter eggs to flesh out the members of the central group, but that’s not an option on the table in the follow-up story – probably because Adam Robitel didn’t want to waste any escape room ideas on their backstories that could be used for future sequels instead.

If you’re just seeing Escape Room: Tournament Of Champions for the escape rooms, you’ll be satisfied.

The overall quality of the character development moves in the wrong direction from the first movie to the second in the burgeoning Escape Room series, but the undeniable feather in its cap is its successful endeavor to up the thrills in its set piece design. From a bank armed with powerful lasers, to a city street plagued by acid rain, to an electrified subway car, the puzzles are well-crafted and scary – regularly keeping the audience guessing and mostly operating logically and realistically. And while there is once again no blood or gore to speak of, that doesn’t stop the mechanics and circumstances from feeling consequential.

While the first Escape Room succeeded as an underdog original horror film, Escape Room: Tournament Of Champions is a sequel that hits similarly to James DeMonaco’s The Purge: Anarchy, in that it firmly demonstrates the very real strength of the underlying premise and showcases its versatility. It’s a movie made with a lot of confidence and strong ideas, and will both earn the appreciation of fans and catch newcomers and naysayers off-guard, even while recognizing its faults and limitations.

6 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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