2019's Escape Room is a fun and not-particularly-good thriller: fun mostly because of the ingenuity and narrative utility of its set design, not particularly good mostly because of its unbelievably stupid worldbuilding and attempt to paste a techno-paranoia mythology onto the gimmick "what if you died for real when you fucked up an escape room?" And also because of its bizarrely misguided sequel hook that took an entire extra act to glue onto the rest of the movie. Or not so misguided, as it turns out, because here we are, with Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, which was made with the kind of white-knuckle speed that gives you faith in cheapie production units (it was ready to come out a mere 15 months after the original, before delays - not initially because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though that certainly didn't help). And wouldn't you just know, but Tournament of Champions turns out to be a fun and not-particularly-good thriller.

It is possible to wiggle a knife into the crack between the two films, quality-wise, and I think the difference tips towards the first Escape Room in pretty much every way they can be compared. But it's probably not worth the effort. Tournament of Champions is very much a "more of the same thing" sequel, made by pretty much exactly the same crew, though it took a considerably larger number of people to assemble the script for this one. Which is a little odd, given how little story there is here, but I guess it's easier having a roomful of writers to brainstorm the puzzles that the escape room victims have to solve before they die whatever horrible deaths have been concocted for them. The biggest differences between the two films are that Tournament of Champions puts most of its very worst material at the beginning, rather than the end, and that it is 11 minutes shorter than its predecessor. Both of which are improvements, though try to think that during the insufferable opening sequence of the new movie, a four-part symphony of shit.

To begin with, it has an actual "previously on" montage, assembled with a decent sense of rhythm but not anything like actual expository value. And besides making things more of a confused jumble than clarifying things, it just makes the thing feel cheap as hell, like the second night of a made-for-TV event movie in the 1990s. No sooner have we suffered this chintzy indignity than we rocket into a scene between Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell) and her therapist (Lucy Newman-Williams) that reeks of "let's discuss things we both know in order to set up the stakes" screenwriting at its most artless. Suffice it to say that, having survived the first movie and in so doing learned about Minos, the nefarious escape room-designing corporation that tortures people for the purpose of letting a shadow elite cabal gamble on their fates, Zoey has been able to convince nobody that she's not a total cuckoo-bird, and also she doesn't like to get on planes. The latter point is almost shockingly pointless given how much the filmmakers obviously think it matters, but it does mean she has to road-trip with fellow survivor Ben Miller (Logan Miller), who in one scene appears to be attracted to Zoey, but not in any others. Also, Ben says something about three weeks, which is the closest we ever get to having context for when we are, relative to the first movie. Also, the movie up to this point has been rotten with scenes of people talking while we see the outside of cars, which may just be an odd directorial fillip of Adam Robitel, but it sure does read as lines that were plugged in to patch up a first act that was even sloppier than the one we've got. And also, finally, Ben has a vision that is visually interesting but narratively stupid, and triggers the film's single worst line of dialogue - he wakes up screaming and blubbering and Zoey says with somewhat uncertain conviction that he seems to be having a nightmare. Do you fucking think?

Anyway, the two arrive at New York to find Minos headquarters and instead end up chasing a junkie into the subway, and here at last - I say at last, it's been like 10 minutes, but they are viciously bad - the movie starts. Zoey and Ben are on a subway car with four other souls - Rachel (Holland Roden), Brianna (Indya Moore), Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel), and a poor bastard who dies before he gets a chance to introduce himself, but the credits say he's called Theo (Carlito Olivero). It turns out that all six have survived a trip through Minos's escape rooms - "what is this, a tournament of champions?" snarks Rachel, or words to that effect, and yes, thank you, I might not have cracked the mystery of the film's subtitle without that prod - and now the company is running them through another set of deathtrap puzzles, that start by electrifying the very same subway car they're in. Subsequent traps include a bank lobby rigged with lasers (sadly,Tournament of Champions is rated PG-13, so there's to be no fun Resident Evil-style "turned into small meat cubes by lasers" moment), a beach made of quicksand, and a busy New York street with literal acid rain. Theo will not, of course, prove to be the only person who fails to make it all the way through these four rooms alive, though I would be inclined to say that Tournament of Champions has to cheat a lot more blatantly to whittle down its cast members than the first Escape Room.

It is, in general, a bit more labored in getting where it wants to go. The puzzles faced by the players aren't quite as twisty or hard to figure out (in particular, the solution to the beach is so blindingly obvious given how Robitel and the camera team frame the clues that I'm not sure how it could be overlooked for so long by a group of people whose solitary shared characteristic is "good at escape rooms"), the settings aren't quite as playfully designed, though the conceit that the beach is meant to look like a flat postcard in three dimensions is particularly fun. And the characters aren't quite as well-developed, one of the most unexpected delights of the first movie; they're trying to give these people personalities - in fact, they're perhaps trying a bit too visibly - and it helps that the actors are all going above and beyond in providing inner life that wasn't on the page (especially Moore and Cocquerel), but they still end up feeling more like simulations of people, rather than actual people.

That's a whole lot of "not quite as", though, which hopefully suggests a fairly moderate level of disappointment on my part. Honestly, once it gets revved up, Tournament of Champions is perfectly fine; it's basically watching people play a live-action video game, but the game itself looks fun enough, and the breathless urgency with which the characters shout out chains of numbers and list the things they're looking at has a kind of goofy fun, goosed along by John Carey and Brian Tyler's score screaming at us. It doesn't begin well and it doesn't end well, which makes it hard to just outright declare "yep, this is a movie that I liked and you should see", and this one feels the limitations of the teen-friendly PG-13 rating far more severely than its predecessor (I'm really not interested in forgiving the movie the lack of brutal laser death). But it moves fast, and it makes sure we feel every single one of its several ticking clocks, in the beating musical rhythms and breathless editing and the decibel level of characters shouting. A harmless, watchable, forgettable thriller through and through, and I'm not going to try to dictate to anybody how much enthusiasm they should feel about watching such a thing. But I did not, at least, feel notably ill-used.