Totally Random Movies: Escape Room (2019) & Escape Room: Tournament Of Champions (2021)

With so many choices in the world of movies — from physical media to streamers — it can be hard to figure out what to watch. So, I’ve randomized the process!

I think it’s kind of fun how streamers develop certain personalities in my head. For me, Starz is that oddball who wandered into the group, I didn’t know much about them and we’re not super close, but I really enjoy our time together. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but we subscribe solely so my wife can watch Outlander. We’ve almost cancelled a few times and then, bam, they give us a good enough deal to stick around. But, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to pay for something that just sits there, so I’ve put together an interesting queue on there mostly consisting of action flicks.

Whatever the case, I know I’m usually in for a fun ride with Starz, so I was pretty excited to use my Totally Random process to check out a movie on there which got me to Escape Room from 2019. Helmed by Adam Robitel (The Taking Of Dobrah Logan) this one brings together a seemingly disparate group of individuals — Taylor Russell’s Zoey, Logan Miller’s Ben, Jay Ellis’ Jason, Tyler Labine’s Mike, Nik Dodani’s Danny and Deborah Ann Woll’s Amanda — to solve a number of murderous escape room puzzles. As they move from one to the other, their numbers dwindle, but we acquire more knowledge about what’s going in.

I don’t want to spoil much because I knew nothing going into this movie. Weirdly, it seemed like I never saw anyone saw a word about it, which is too bad because I though they were super fun. But I want to give you an idea of what’s up. So, after solving a puzzle box, a card popped up telling them they can earn stacks of cash by solving this crazy-hard escape room made by a company called Minos. While they’re sitting in the waiting room, they slowly realize that the games have already begun and they’re not messing around. Those who escape crawl through a tunnel and wind up in a cabin. I just love those sorta surreal moments, they remind me of the cartoons I used to watch as a kid, but with slightly more murder. Plus, one of the rooms is a bar that’s been completely flipped upside down. I just love the imagination that went into the ideas and, more importantly, the very practical construction of them!

But the great thing about Escape Room is that it’s not just about the death traps. Ever from the very first obstacle, we start to realize that certain elements of the rooms seem intended to trigger specific participants. So, with each discovery we learn more about them and the major commonality between all of them. And this cast does a great job with the material, balancing their inner lives with the turmoil all around them. I wasn’t familiar with Russell, Woll or Ellis going in, though I have since seen Jay be very funny in History Of The World Part II, but they are all fantastic. It was also nice sing Labine mature into a different kind of role than the goofballs I’ve been seeing him play since Reaper. Miller — who’s in the underrated Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse — is solid as the tortured, angry young man and Dodani carries on that unique enthusiasm previously seen in Atypical. Russell quickly becomes the stand-out though as she uses her intelligence to first, solve the puzzles, and then concoct a way to stop playing their game and start playing her own. Horror flicks don’t always have the smartest main characters, but Escape Room is a nice exception.

Having enjoyed my experience with the first film, I jumped right into the 2021 sequel Escape Room: Tournament Of Champions, also directed by Robitel. Let’s dub this paragraph spoiler territory for the first film. We learn that there’s a huge operation putting these rooms together and that rich people pay to watch folks run through death traps (like Squid Game). There’s a Gamesmaster watching over the proceedings, a support staff to deal with the contestants/bodies and a Puzzle Master who designs everything. In the case of the first film’s group, they were all the sole survivors of accidents because those in charge wanted to see if luck had anything to do with surviving their competition. They didn’t count on Zoey being a freaking genius, though, who ultimately survived along with Ben, though when they tried telling the cops, there was zero evidence left in the warehouse.

When Escape Room 2 picks up, Zoey’s been putting her mind to work trying to figure out how Minos works. Ben agrees to go with her and, while riding the subway, they realize they’re right back in it…along with a group of people who ALSO survived murder rooms! You’ve got Brianna (Indya Moore), Rachel (Holland Roden) and (Thomas Cocquerel) who all do nice work in this, each bringing not just their unique characters to the film, but also a weariness having gone through these traps before. And the traps this time are just great. I mean, the art deco bank? The beach? The alley? They’re all rad!

Again, I won’t go too far into detail on this one because it’s a pretty wild ride with a lot of twists. Ultimately, this sequel goes even further to show just how rad Zoey is as a character, though now she’s with a few more super smart survivors in Brianna and Rachel. She never gives up, she’s super smart and she’s not playing by anyone else’s rules. Zoey’s looking for a way to work around the game, to win and also bring them down. But an organization that’s been around for this long does not take kindly to losing and has its own fair share of geniuses aboard, of the evil variety. It must have been an interesting process in writing all this because you’re not only dealing with the overall puzzle, but ways for the smart characters to work around those puzzles. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Weirdly, there are two versions of this film. The one on Starz is the theatrical release. However, there’s an extended version on Blu-ray that totally changes the story by removing a surprise returning character from the first one and replacing them with a pair of Minos employees. I haven’t seen that version, but I gotta say, this is an odd move, especially if there are plans for a third installment, which I hope there are.

For me, these movies wound up being like a super-fun combination of Cube and the Final Destination flicks. There’s also this Marvel Comics villain named Arcade who builds ridiculously huge and intricate death traps (like the pinball one seen in Uncanny X-Men #123). The Escape Rooms take those wonderfully drawn ideas and present them in glorious live action. There’s one more comp that just came to mind though and that’s the John Wick flicks. These are very different kinds of films, but I like how the first installments of each just begin to pull back the curtain of what these worlds are, that then gets thrown open further with the sequel. Here’s hoping we get more!

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