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Deadly puzzles bring new thrills in ‘Escape Room’ sequel

UPDATED: Fri., July 16, 2021

Thomas Cocquerel in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions.”  (Sony Pictures)
Thomas Cocquerel in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions.” (Sony Pictures)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

Adam Robitel’s 2019 B-movie horror flick “Escape Room” had all the auspices of a flash in the pan: early January release and a gimmicky premise based around a live entertainment trend. “Escape Room” was just that: a series of high-stakes, life-or-death puzzles. But thanks to the cast and characters, plus a fantastic final girl in Taylor Russell, it worked. Operating in the mode of the “Saw” and “Final Destination” franchises, there could be a long future for “Escape Room” movies, and the sequel, “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions,” even leaner and meaner than the first, proves the staying power of this budding series. There’s no other way to say it: This movie rips.

Previously on “Escape Room,” the smart, sad Zoey (Russell) broke her way out of the game and rescued Ben (Logan Miller) in the process. Now she’s determined to go after the dastardly Minos organization that runs the games that killed her friends, so the pals set off for New York to do some recon. They end up on an out-of-control subway car (shades of “The Taking of Pelham 123”) with what appears to be a group of strangers, though it’s quickly revealed that everyone has experience with Minos escape room torture. This is the tournament of champions, and we get to jump right into the puzzles with clever, yet unwilling participants.

Minos and its intentions are vague: They plan these lethal escape rooms for an audience of “customers” to watch, pitting groups of people to see how it plays out: lone survivors, priests, influencers. It’s the same motivations that underpin dystopian stories like “The Most Dangerous Game,” “Battle Royale” and even “The Hunger Games,” so we don’t need to spend too much time on who these villains are or what they want. We get it. What we want to see is the panicked victims puzzling together clues as the rooms rumble and shake around them, deadly traps erupting as the clock counts down.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is a pastiche of its predecessors, using this mosaic of tropes and formula familiarity as a shorthand to keep the film pared down to the basics of what exactly makes it tick: increasingly sadistic puzzles and a great cast of characters. The new players in Indya Moore, Holland Roden, Thomas Cocquerel and Carlito Olivero are fantastic additions.

But Zoey and Ben remains the heart of the blossoming franchise. Zoey is a soulful and sorrowful final girl in the style of Sidney from “Scream.” She wants justice and vengeance on Minos, but she’s so smart she can’t help but solve whatever puzzle is in front of her. Therein lies the pleasure of “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions,” where every participant is a Zoey type (they all won, after all). We’re in a strange paradox as viewers: Do we even want to see her escape? That would deny the satisfaction of watching her work. But it doesn’t seem like it’s coming to an end any time soon, so that will happily remain a quandary for another day.

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