The start of a new year can be relied upon for a number of familiar standards: bold new lifestyle changes that last for days, a hangover that lasts even longer and a junky American horror film dumped into cinemas on the first Friday never to be thought of again.
Ever since 2012 saw Paramount chuck toxic found footage shocker The Devil Inside into the wild and make $33m in its opening weekend (from a $1m budget), studios have found audiences more then willing to cough up their Christmas money for equally heinous product. Dross like Texas Chainsaw 3D, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Insidious: The Last Key made money despite loathsome reviews, partly because they were mostly tossed out without press being able to actually write about them first, screenings non-existent (this strange trend is analysed nicely in an AV Club podcast episode). Such cursed backstory meant that when 2019’s token sacrificial lamb Escape Room came out, the most shocking thing wasn’t that it made $155m globally from a budget of just $9m but that it was actually kind of sort of good?
Beyond its opportunistic title and Cube meets Saw meets every other film that has since copied Cube and Saw premise, it was a surprisingly inventive and genuinely fun little B-movie, a quick, unpretentious blast of PG-13 death and destruction that raised a below ground bar just slightly above surface. A sequel was inevitable (it ended with an ambitious tease of what was next) and so here it comes, bounding in with the same infectious energy as the first, albeit dragged down by a rather laughably unscary new game show subtitle – Escape Room: Tournament of Champions.
As that suggests, this time we’re dealing with the best of the best, a cherrypicked group of Escape Room survivors, those who have outsmarted the evil corporation of Minos that the first film introduced in its mask-slip finale. Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller) made it out of their booby-trapped maze unscathed but have been left haunted by what they saw and what was done to them. Zoey is eager for revenge and so takes Ben on a trip to New York, where some mysterious co-ordinates will allegedly lead them to the big boss headquarters. But Minos has other plans and before they have time to realise, they’re back in another snuff game with some understandably exhausted players.
The all-stars setup, as insanely convoluted as it might be, allows the film to leap over hurdles that too often prove troublesome for groups-in-jeopardy horrors. For maximum conflict, the dynamic usually involves at least one disbelieving trouble-maker or someone whose scream-at-the-screen bad decision-making causes eye-rollingly avoidable carnage. But right from the jump, the contestants might be understandably furious at their predicament but they’re also motivated, and experienced, problem-solvers. There’s a deeply satisfying vein of competence porn running through so many of the setpieces, each character swiftly scream-solving puzzles together and while the clues themselves might not hold up in the clear light of the cinema lobby, it’s a blast to watch them unfold.
It’s a repetitive formula, sure, but there’s still a sense of devilish creativity often missing in studio genre fare, each room a handsome, well-designed new world and while a PG-13 rating often feels like clumsy censorship in wide-releasing horror, here we get just enough nastiness without the film needing to edge into the gnarly overkill of the Saw franchise. The brash world-building from director Adam Robitel and his four writers might be utterly nonsensical but its ambition is admirable and its puppyish energy is buoyed by a set of game performers, in particular Russell (next to be seen in Luca Guadagnino’s Bones & All) who brings sensitivity along with tenacity and Pose’s Indya Moore who’s effectively spunky as one of the game’s more determined players.
The film falls down as it stumbles toward the finish line, attempting too many big swings that mostly miss, expanding the Escape Room universe to a size that feels overstretched. But even when it’s trying too hard, the very fact that it’s trying at all makes it hard to dislike. The rules might not make any sense but you’ll have fun playing along regardless.