Review: ‘Escape Room 2’ Is A Good Sequel To A Great ‘Saw’ Knock-Off
If you liked Escape Room, you’ll like Escape Room: Tournament of Champions. That may seem to be an obvious statement, but there is a welcome consistency with this second go-around of Sony’s accidental horror franchise. Released in January of 2019, Adam Robitel’s surprise hit ($155 million on a $9 million budget) was a fine example of what I like to call the “rip-off, don’t remake” philosophy.
The high-concept horror thriller, a PG-13/tension-over-gore crowded room ensemble flick was essentially “Saw 4 Kidz.” However, it went its own way and artistically justified itself as its own unique piece of popcorn entertainment. Among other things, it was probably the best “schlock horror film released in the first weekend of the year” since Daybreakers in 2010.
Not only did it earn more worldwide than almost any other actual Saw movie, but it also became a horror franchise unto itself. Delayed from April 17, 2020, due to Covid, this $15 million-budgeted follow-up furthers the idea of Escape Room as its own thing. It shares many of its predecessor’s strengths and frankly some of its “franchise-building” weaknesses too.
Tournament of Champions starts with plenty of “for those who came in late” exposition and readjustment. Taylor Russell’s Zoey Davis is still coping from being among the lone survivors of the last film’s core traps, both trying to adjust to normalcy and still focused on exposing a global conspiracy of similar deadly games. One thing leads to another, and both she and fellow survivor Ben Miller (Logan Miller) end up in a subway car seemingly rigged for death, alongside four young adults who reveal themselves to be prior survivors.
The notion of former “winners” being brought together and forced to work together is itself a good hook, and not just a potent sequel subtitle. However, through no fault of the actors, the personalities blend together with everyone essentially acting the same in terms of being young adult, traumatized and somewhat on-edge survivors of similar age and economic status. Moreover, since these are all survivors who know the rules, we do (by default) lose some of that sense of discovery from which the previous combatants exposed themselves in terms of character.
But once the movie gets where you want it to go, it fires on all cylinders right up until the admittedly overwrought climax. I wish it were less sequel-friendly, but I expected that going in, since that was my one big qualm with the first film. However, when your first film earns decent reviews, strong buzz and 17x its budget in global theatrical alone, you don’t fix what seemingly isn’t broken.
The justly PG-13 film is almost gore-free. Moreover, by not falling into an And Then There Were None template with a regularly scheduled death every ten minutes, the unpredictability of its set-ups, pay-offs and near-misses creates genuine suspense. There is bruised-forearm tension regarding whether the elaborate “escape rooms” will claim a member of the cast, and genuine sadness when a victim doesn’t make it.
While not exactly the Ted Lasso of horror films, there’s a unique optimism to watching this team of survivors relentlessly try to save each other and not just themselves. The sequel further solidifies the series as a horror franchise rooted in the avoidance of death rather than the grotesque loss of life, which makes the periodic sting of death that much more painful. This is a horror film where the very idea of untimely death is tragic and horrific no matter how that life comes to an end.
The traps themselves are bigger, more perilous and often wonkier than from the first film. The expanded and “improved” traps are almost too frantic and the pace too quick. There’s less foreboding and grim realization as the competitors have little time to take stock in the situation or make qualitative decisions before having to avoid the next fatal countdown.
Like some of the kookier Saw sequels, the traps are sometimes too clever for their own good, with circumstances that don’t give enough time for anyone to “make a choice.” Still, in terms of art direction and production design, the key locations get the job done. And the game cast (including franchise newbies Indya Moore, Holland Roden, Thomas Cocquerel and Isabelle Fuhrman) commit to the bit, while Escape Room further sets itself apart by rooting itself in its heroes rather than its villains.
While the baddies are essentially faceless corporate monsters, Taylor Russell’s Zoey Davis remains something approaching a “marquee hero,” as the entire cast offers a casual inclusivity which would cause a bazillion think pieces if it were a Disney superhero movie. Escape Room 2 is a good example of how horror films have long been rooted in the stories of non-white protagonists and folks of “lower” economic stature way before such onscreen diversity became a defining media-friendly talking point. Escape Room is a (now-two-film) franchise centered on a young Black woman “just because.”
Escape Room 2 doesn’t quite end on its best foot, spending too much time on overly elaborate wrap-up and (very slight spoiler) sequel set-up. I understand the reasoning, but the “passion play” elements are so effective that the movie ends on a note of pity more than excitement. But if it doesn’t launch quite right and doesn’t stick the landing, that middle hour is absolutely aces in terms of what it promises and what it delivers.
Escape Room 2: Tournament of Champions is a shining example of what can happen when you take a formula and make it your own. You take Point Break and swap out surfing for racing and you get a ten-movie, $6 billion-plus franchise. You take the Saw formula and deemphasize the gore and emphasize the problem solving and you get Escape Room, which began as Saw Jr. but now stands tall alongside its cinematic forebears.