You’ve got to hand it to the screenwriters who brainstorm the ever-more-elaborate ways to off people in these clockwork killing pictures — the “Saw” series and their evil stepchild, the “Escape Room” movies.
Are escape rooms still a thing? I see abandoned versions of such enterprises in empty malls I pass through. A fad that’s done?
Doesn’t matter. Knowing what they are and how they work is the lingua franca of this tiny corner of horror.
“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” serves up death by electrocution, (literal) acid rain, mechanically-engineered quicksand, laser slicing and drowning in just 89 minutes.
Who could live through that? This is, of course, the whole point.
We had two survivors from 2019’s “Escape Room,” not to be confused with several other variations of that title. Puzzle-whiz Zoey (Taylor Russell) and nerdy Ben (Logan Miller) solved the murderous puzzle cooked up by an oligarchical entity called Minos, an enterprise that entraps people in deadly, ornate and obscenely expensive “rooms” where the hapless victims die, on camera, for rich subscribers.
Zoey is in therapy when the sequel begins, looking for a cure for her mania. “Every single thing you see is a ‘clue,'” her therapist (Lucy Newman-Williams) complains. But no breakthroughs today, “Our time is up.”
Zoey talks Ben, slavishly devoted to her since “You saved my life” in the first film, into driving them to New York to seek clues and find these Mino multi-millionaires who are cooking up puzzles that kill “players” who don’t realize the stakes.
But events conspire to put them in a subway car with four strangers. As the car goes off planned route, lights flickers and ominous noises thunk and clink around it. They realize that the other four passengers on board (Indya Moore, Thomas Cocquerel, Holland Roden, Carlito Olivero) are also survivors of their respective escape rooms.
“So that makes this, what, Tournament of Champions?”
They’re promptly jolted, prodded, threatened and lured from one “room” to the next, getting picked-off along the way. They and we must reason our way through clues that nobody under that sort of stress would handle all that well. Winging it is never a good idea.
“It’s worth a try.”
“Yeah, like nothing bad happens when we touch things!”
The puzzles don’t play fair with the viewer. We could never piece together what the players do, and neither could they without the screenplay’s “obvious” (not in the least) clues.
The clockwork nature of the killer-rooms is mimicked by the script, which barely has time to sketch in what this character’s backstory might be, what that person’s worst fear is.
With every room a ticking clock killing machine, who has time for that?
That deprives the actors of empathetic characters, and breaks whatever emotional pact such movies make with the audience. There’s one decent moment of pathos here, and a dozen blown chances for more.
But director Adam Robitel must’ve gotten a bonus for every second under 90 minutes “Tournament of Champions” runs. There’s just “no time” for anything like that.
The actors could have given us more, but the mad rush to get where EVERYbody knows this thing is going (with an odd wrinkle or two) deprives them of that and us of the “escape” a better movie would have delivered.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for violence, terror/peril and strong language
Cast: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Indya Moore, Holland Roden, Carlito Olivero
Credits: Directed by Adam Robitel, script by Will Honley, Maria Melnick and Daniel Tuch. A Sony/Columbia release.
Running time: 1:28