The only one of several same-titled movies in recent years to make a significant commercial dent, Adam Robitel’s 2019 “Escape Room” proved a considerable sleeper hit, making back many times its modest $9 million budget. Ergo “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions,” which brings back the first edition’s director, surviving characters and other elements in another primarily South Africa-shot U.S. production.
This follow-up immediately announces itself as aiming no higher than strict franchise “more of the same”-ness, beginning with a recap of prior events and ending with a de facto kickoff for No. 3. Audiences seeking disposable summertime entertainment will find it certainly meets basic expectations, further amping up the unoriginal original’s hectic, video game-like PG-13 thrills. But with breathless pacing its only real distinction, and zero attention to clever intricacies, character development or background mythology (evil corporation Minos remains a faceless off-screen blank), “Escape Room” is boxing itself into being one of the most charmless, least intriguing big-screen action franchises going.
Youths Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller) were the only successful escapees from a labyrinth of booby-trapped environs that claimed the lives of their four co-“players” last time around, as an opening montage rapidly reviews. Then, the strangers were lured in by an innocent-looking invitation to compete for prize money. Now, they’re not about to fall for another such ruse, but suspect, shadowy Minos Co. will ensnare them anyhow. That comes true when on a dual trip to NYC (where they hope to find the company HQ and expose its nefarious deeds), they find themselves in a subway car that soon detaches itself from the rest of the train.
The passengers comprise another fateful half-dozen: In addition to those previously met, there’s hunky husband Theo (Carlito Olivero), assertive Rachel (Holland Roden), panicky Brianna (Indya Moore) and tippling priest Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel). As they quickly realize, each has already survived one Minos Escape Rooms adventure, and all are now stuck together in a new one. Team spirit must develop in a hurry as the metal train car begins turning into an electrocution chamber.
Once out of this frying pan, those still alive jump into the next fire, then the next. There’s an art deco bank lobby rigged up as a maze of deadly laser beams, an oceanfront mockup collapsing into a sandy sinkhole; and a fake city block raked every 30 seconds by acid rain. On each elaborate set, the characters scramble to find clues and passcodes against a ticking clock.
The conceit of constant, Rube Goldbergian perils sparked a certain degree of ingenuity from the “Final Destination” and (to a lesser extent) “Saw” series. But here, despite solid-enough work from production designer Edward Thomas and the FX personnel, the crises don’t have a lot of imaginative panache, and the set-pieces are busy but unmemorable. Part of the problem is that since everything is at so incessant a fever pitch, suspense flattens rather than builds, and we don’t care much about characters who spend nearly all their time yelling instructions at each other.
A Numero Deux is where the overall mystery should deepen, feeding our curiosity toward whatever grand conspiracy is behind it all, so that No. 3 offers satisfactions other than just another few deaths. But the many screenwriters credited don’t bother: We learn nothing about Minos beyond it apparently staging these spectacles to satisfy the long-distance bloodlust of rich subscribers. (Zzzzzz.) “Tournament” plays more like a No. 5 or so, that point in a franchise when a new installment is just one more Lego piece linking to the next, providing those audiences still on board comfortable repetition rather than any new ideas or creative risks. This is not just premature; it also kneecaps the series’ future, as any larger plot complications it comes up with may now feel too little, too late.
Nonetheless, if it’s almost 90 minutes of distracting but unchallenging sound and fury you’re after, something too fast-paced for its gaping implausibilities to matter, “Champions” is a competently crafted B-movie. The most, perhaps the only thing, you can say about it with enthusiasm is that it’s not boring. Which isn’t much, but it is something.