Review: ‘Escape Room: Tournament of Champions,’ starring Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Indya Moore, Holland Roden, Thomas Cocuerel and Carlito Olivero

July 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Holland Roden, Indya Moore and Thomas Cocquerel in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions”

Directed by Adam Robitel

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the horror film “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” features a mostly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Six people are trapped by diabololical forces in an elaborate escape room, where they are forced to solve different puzzles in a limited time, or else they might die.

Culture Audience: “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” will appeal primarily to people who saw 2019’s “Escape Room” and to people who don’t mind watching silly horror movies that have nonsensical plots.

Holland Roden, Carlito Olivero, Thomas Cocquerel, Indya Moore, Taylor Russell and Logan Miller in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)

What’s really escaped from “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is good filmmaking. Viewers will feel trapped in this badly made horror sequel, which consists mostly of idiotic scenes of people yelling at each other while they unrealistically solve convoluted puzzles in a very short period of time or else they could die. In real life, people who are panicking this much wouldn’t be able to have the near-psychic powers that these trapped characters seem to have when they quickly make over-the-top, elaborate deductions. The so-called “problem solving” in the movie doesn’t feel earned, because it looks exactly like what it is: overly staged nonsense from a poorly written screenplay.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is the sequel to 2019’s “Escape Room,” both directed by Adam Robitel. “Escape Room” had two screenwriters (Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik), while “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” has four: Melnik, Will Honley, Daniel Tuch and Oren Uziel. It could be a case of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Just like most movie sequels, “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is inferior to the original.

In “Escape Room,” six strangers were unwittingly chosen by a mysterious and sinister group called Minos to be in a life-or-death escape room. If you don’t know what happened at the end of “Escape Room,” you’ll be forced to know this spoiler information when watching “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions.” Two people who survived at the end of “Escape Room” are physics student Zoey Davis (played by Taylor Russell) and grocery store stocker Ben Miller (played by Logan Miller), who became friends after their traumatic ordeal.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” begins with Zoey and Ben, who have traveled by plane to New York City, trying to find the unlisted building in Manhattan that Zoey thinks could be the headquarters of Minos. It’s a clue that she found at the very end of “Escape Room.” “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” wastes time in the beginning with a terror scene of Ben being trapped somewhere, but it turns out to be a nightmare. This “it was only a nightmare” trick is used in a lot of horror movies as a way to fill up the time when the writers can’t think of anything else to further the plot.

It isn’t long before Zoey and Ben arrrive at the abandoned building that they’re sure can give them answers to who’s behind the escape room that they endured. Inside the building is a scruffy-looking guy (played by Matt Esof), who appears to be a homeless junkie. He claims to know nothing about the escape room. But he’s observant enough to see the pocket watch that Zoey has, so he lightly cuts her with a knife and steals the watch.

Zoey and Ben chase after this thief, but he’s able to escape. Out of breath and feeling defeated, Zoey and Ben go on a subway train to figure out what to do next. And this is the part of the movie where you know the “escape room” antics will start and that the other people in the same subway car will be trapped in the game too.

Sure enough, the subway car starts rocking like it’s been hit by an earthquake. There’s no train conductor in sight. And in a dumb movie like this one, the subway conveniently doesn’t have emergency brakes or a way to call for emergency services. The subway car detaches from the rest of the train, as it hurtles off the train tracks.

The six people trapped in this subway car are:

  • Zoey, the smartest one in the group who’s the most likely to figure out solutions to the puzzles.
  • Ben, a somewhat passive follower who keeps reminding everyone that Zoey saved his life.
  • Theo (played by Carlito Olivero), the loudest and most panic-stricken person in the group.
  • Rachel Ellis (played by Holland Roden), who’s very sarcastic and the one most likely to tell the terrible jokes that fall flat in the movie.
  • Brianna Collier (played by Indya Moore), the one most likely to run into a booby trap so that she can predictably scream and wail.
  • Nathan (played by Thomas Cocquerel), an alcoholic who seems to have given up on life until he has to fight for his life in this new escape room scenario.

Theo is an athletic-looking guy who tries to pound and kick his way out of the subway car, to no avail. He’s upset because he tells everyone that today is his wife’s birthday, and there’s no way he’s going to miss celebrating her birthday with her. It doesn’t take long for these six people trapped in the subway car to figure out that they were brought together for a reason: They all survived previous escape rooms that were masterminded by Minos. And if the reason for this gathering of survivors isn’t clear enough to viewers (because the filmmakers must think everyone watching is as dumb as this movie), Rachel announces that this must be the “tournament of champions.”

Suddenly, it looks like an electrical storm has appeared in the subway car. It’s a race against time to figure out the puzzle or else they’ll die. Underneath a seat, a purse is found with a pedal that the trapped people use for purposes that won’t be revealed in this review. The subway car’s overhead electronic announcement sign gives ominous messages with clues on how to solve the life-or-death puzzle in a very limited of time.

These clues are extremely and unnecessarily complicated to stretch out each scene into a tangled web of people shouting out theories that they think will solve the puzzle. They see an announcement that says “Beware of False Advertising.” Zoey immediately figures out that means they should look for misspelling on the ads in the subway car. Somehow, these missing letters are linked to obsolete subway tokens that mysteriously show up and have to correspond with the number of passenger handles located on the upper rails in the subway car.

Zoey has quickly figured out that there are 26 of these passenger handles in the subway car, so of course they correspond with the 26 letters of the English alphabet. One of the passenger handles has a green stripe and another handle at the opposite end of the car has a red stripe. In lightning-quick speed, Zoey deduces that the green-striped handle stands for the letter “a,” and the red-striped handle stands for the letter “z.”

And so, when certain misspelled or missing letters are found on the subway ads, there’s a mad dash to find the passenger handles that correspond with that letter of the alphabet. When these handles are pulled, they reveal tokens that have to be put in a token slot box before time runs out. They’re supposed to do all of this in about 10 minutes, which is a ridiculously short amount of time for even the most logical, genius-level person to figure out while tapped in a subway car filled with electrical lightning that could kill anyone at any moment.

Conveniently, the subway car has a trap door that opens if they figure out the puzzle in time. And you know that this puzzle will be solved, because if it wasn’t solved, “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” would be a very short movie. Other puzzle scenarios in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” include figuring out elaborate codes in a deserted bank with deadly security lasers; trying not to get trapped in quicksand on an idyllic-looking beach; and figuring out how to get protection when stuck out on a street where it’s literally pouring acidic rain.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” has a semi-obsession with burning or electrocuting the people who are trapped in this moronic game. And the movie has moments that are unintentionally funny because they’re so badly written. None of the acting in this movie is outstanding. It’s all very formulaic.

And forget about getting to know the characters in the movie, because they’re as hollow as hollow can be. Except for Zoey and Ben, none of the characters has a significant backstory. People who saw the first “Escape Room” movie will learn nothing new about Zoey and Ben in this sequel.

It’s mentioned that Brianna is a travel vlogger, but she’s such a stereotypical screaming ninny in a horror movie that she couldn’t find her way out of a paper bag. Carlito is a lunkhead who foolishly thinks he can strong-arm his way out of the escape room. Nathan has a vaguely mentioned troubled past that he’d like to forget, while Rachel is just forgettable.

Instead of having actual personalities, the characters in “Escape Room” are just lines of horribly written dialogue and just spend a lot of time shouting at each other about what they think they should do next. Because they don’t always agree, the bickering wastes even more time. And there’s always one second left in the countdown when anyone survives in time to go on to the next puzzle. It all becomes so tedious and predictable after a while.

Perhaps the most awful part of “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is that it tells viewers that any death that happens in this movie series might not be a real death. One of the people who “died” in the first “Escape Room” movie suddenly shows up to help in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions.” Because this is such a terrible movie, there’s no logical reason given for why or how this person survived, even though the death was clearly shown in the first “Escape Room” movie.

Zoey and Ben are shocked to see this person, who has this vapid explanation when Zoey and Ben ask why this person isn’t dead: “If you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.” In other words, more mindless excuses to have plot holes. And that means more ridiculousness if the “Escape Room” movie series continues. The dimwitted end of “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” makes it clear that the filmmakers want to dump more “Escape Room” movies into the world. That’s a trap that fans of good horror movies can avoid.

Columbia Pictures will release “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” in U.S. cinemas on July 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Words on Bathroom Walls,’ starring Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Andy Garcia, Beth Grant, Molly Parker and Walton Goggins

August 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Taylor Russell and Charlie Plummer in “Words on Bathroom Walls” (Photo by Jacob Yakob/LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

“Words on Bathroom Walls”

Directed by Thor Freudenthal

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the romantic drama “Words on Bathroom Walls” has a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A high-school senior with schizophrenia wants to go to culinary school to become a chef, and he has a hard time dealing with the stigma of his mental illness, which he hides from a fellow student who’s his secret crush.

Culture Audience: “Words on Bathroom Walls” will appeal mostly to people who like movies about young love, but some of the movie’s occasionally trite or hokey way of portraying mental illness might offend or frustrate viewers.

Charlie Plummer and Andy Garcia in “Words on Bathroom Walls” (Photo by Jacob Yakob/LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

In romantic dramas about high-school students, the biggest problems that the students usually face are issues about academics, sports or popularity among their peers. “Words on Bathroom Walls” goes deep into the serious issue of mental illness by having its narrator/protagonist struggling with schizophrenia, which causes problems for him at home and at school. Directed by Thor Freudenthal and written by Nick Naveda (based on the novel by Julia Walton), “Words on Bathroom Walls” makes a sincere effort to portray this psychiatric disorder with respect, but the results sometime veer into the type of hokey territory that is seen all too-often in teen dramas.

The movie’s most ludicrous and melodramatic moments are elevated by the above-average performances by Charlie Plummer and Taylor Russell, who play the would-be teen couple at the center of the story. Without the acting talent of these two stars, “Words on Bathroom Walls” would be on par with the lower-quality “disease of the week” story that is usually made for mediocre television shows. The movie also has some witty dialogue which is much better than some of the contrived, unrealistic situations in the story.

It’s clear from the beginning of the movie that Adam Petrazelli (played by Plummer) has been living with mental illness (which includes having delusions) for a while, but he has more recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which includes having delusions. Adam, who is a senior in high school, lives with his divorced mother Beth (played by Molly Parker) in an unnamed U.S. city. (The movie was actually filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina.)

Adam loves to cook, and his career goal is to become a professional chef, but he worries about how his mental illness will affect his chances to reach that goal. Early on in the movie, Adam comments in a voiceover about his awareness that he had schizophrenia: “What I would’ve given for a classic case of glaucoma, because soon after, I started hearing the voices.”

Adam doesn’t just hear voices. He also sees three fictional people who are part of his hallucinations and who become his imaginary companions/advisors when he’s going through a schizophrenic episode. Joaquin (played by Devon Bostick) is a guy in his late teens whom Adam describes as being like “the horny best friend in a ‘90s teen movie following you around.” Rebecca (played by AnnaSophia Robb) is a neo-hippie type in her 20s who likes to spread optimism and positive vibes. Bodyguard (played by Lobo Sebastian) is a rough-looking, tracksuit-wearing protector in his 30s who carries around a baseball bat and other weapons. Bodyguard doesn’t hesitate to get violent if he thinks Adam is in danger. Occasionally, some of Bodyguard’s friends (who wear similar tracksuits) also show up to do some damage.

Adam is the type of teenager who speaks like he’s about 10 years older than his real age. In a voiceover, he asks: “How hard could it be to hide my burgeoning insanity from the unforgiving ecosystem that is high school?” Adam is keeping his mental illness a secret from the people at his public high school, but it’s a secret that was exposed in an incident that led to him being diagnosed with schizophrenia. This incident is shown in a flashback scene.

While attending a chemistry class, Adam had a disturbing psychotic break in which he hallucinated that the Bodyguard and his friends were destroying the classroom. The imaginary mayhem caused Adam to accidentally strike out at his acquaintance/lab partner Todd (played by Aaron Domingues), who was severely burned when a container of chemicals accidentally spilled on his arm. This incident led to Adam being expelled from school and shunned by Todd, who hangs out with a group of school bullies who taunt Adam with insults about his mental illness.

Adam’s expulsion from school comes at a very tricky time for him because he’s applying to go to culinary school, and he won’t be eligible without a high-school diploma. And something else has happened in his life that he’s not happy about: His mother Beth has started dating a man named Paul (played by Walton Goggins), and the relationship has become serious enough that Paul has moved into the family home. Paul and Beth are very much in love, and Paul makes it clear to Adam that he’s in the relationship for the long haul.

Adam tries to keep his emotional distance from Paul, who is willing to help Beth with the responsibilities of caring for a schizophrenic child. Adam and Beth have no relationship with Adam’s father, who abandoned the family years ago. Later in the story, Adam gets some news about his family that makes him feel even more insecure about his mental illness and how it affects the close emotional bond that he’s had with his mother.

Beth is the type of mother who goes overboard in trying to find ways that Adam can be “cured” of his schizophrenia. She has dozens of books and magazine articles, she spends hours poring over information on the Internet, and she’s heavily involved in online support communities for parents of schizophrenic children. Beth’s devotion to Adam is indisputable, but the movie demonstrates that her overzealousness in helping Adam is almost to a fault, because it’s with the expectation that all her efforts will lead to Adam eventually being “cured.” It’s why Beth pushes for Adam to starting taking a prescribed experimental drug that could help with his schizophrenia.

Since there’s no cure for schizophrenia at this time, the best that schizophrenic people can do is try to manage their mental illness. If they are fortunate enough to be under a doctor’s care, the treatment usually means that the patients have to take prescribed medication. When the medication works and the patient feels better, the vicious circle comes when the patient thinks the medication is no longer needed, the patient stops taking the medication, and then the worst symptoms of the mental illness come back again. The movie depicts Adam being caught up in this frustrating and emotionally debilitating cycle.

Beth is able to get Adam enrolled on short notice in a Catholic school that accepts Adam as a student, on the condition that Adam maintain a 3.5 GPA, score above 90% on the school’s annual benchmark exam, and give monthly updates on his psychiatric treatment. During an enrollment meeting that Beth, Paul and Adam have with the school’s stern but compassionate principal Sister Catherine (played by Beth Grant), Adam hallucinates that Sister Catherine’s head catches on fire, and the fire spreads throughout the entire room.

At his new school, Adam is predictably a loner whose socially awkward and introverted nature makes it difficult for him to make new friends. The students, who mostly come from privileged families, aren’t exactly welcoming. Adam is also an “outsider” because he’s not Catholic and he isn’t religious. Therefore, when the school’s students attend Catholic services, he cannot participate.

On his first day at school, when Adam is in the men’s room, he sees a fellow student paying a female student named Maya Arnez (played by Russell) in exchange for homework that she did for him. (This men’s room later becomes the place where Adam hallucinates messages on the walls—hence, the title of this story.)

The way that Adam looks at Maya, it’s obvious that he’s attracted to her, but he nervously bungles his first conversation with her. Maya later strikes up a conversation with him over lunch in the school’s cafeteria. It’s during this conversation that they both find out that they share a similar quirky sense of humor where they like to poke fun at some of life’s absurdities.

It turns out that Maya is in her senior year too, and she’s a star pupil at the school: She’s an “A” student who’s the student-body president, and she’s gotten early acceptance into Duke University. Maya also proudly tells Adam that she fully expects to be chosen as the class valedictorian.

Maya might want the traditional honor of being the class valedictorian, but she sees herself as enough of a nonconformist that she looks down on another high-school tradition: She doesn’t believe in the prom, and she doesn’t want to go. Adam finds out about Maya’s dislike of prom activities during their cafeteria conversation, when Maya abruptly brushes off a female student who approaches her about being involved in the prom committee.

Taylor explains to Adam, “I choose not to affiliate myself with patriarchal norms like prom.” It’s that this point in the movie, considering this is a teen romance story, that you know that there will definitely be a scene where Maya is at the school’s prom. Adam doesn’t mind the idea of going to the school’s prom. If he does go, it’s very obvious he only wants to go with Maya as his date.

When Adam asks Maya about why she would risk her status and reputation in the school to help other students cheat, she says that the money she makes is a “side hustle” for her. Because Adam now knows that Maya will accept money to help other students get better grades, he offers to hire her to be his math tutor, since math is one of his weakest subjects and he needs to maintain a 3.5 GPA.

At first, Maya is reluctant to help Adam because she says the pay rate he cites is too low for her. But Maya changes her mind when Adam invites Maya over to dinner at his home and she meets Beth, who tells Maya the amount she can afford to pay her to tutor Adam, and Maya accepts the amount.

These tutoring sessions lead to Adam and Maya becoming closer, but he’s afraid to tell her about his schizophrenia. Several times, Maya senses that something is wrong with Adam, but every time she asks him what’s wrong, he lies and makes up excuses, such as he’s just tired, or he has a headache condition, or he’s having a bad day.

Meanwhile, Maya has a big secret of her own that she hasn’t told Adam. She goes to great lengths to lie and cover up this secret. When the secret is revealed, it isn’t too surprising because a major was clue was there from the start of Adam and Maya’s first meeting.

“Words on Bathroom Walls” has a subplot of Adam establishing a friendly rapport with the school’s chief priest Father Patrick (played by Andy Garcia), who counsels Adam during confessionals, even though Adam tells Father Patrick up front that he’s not Catholic. Father Patrick can see that Adam is troubled, and he’s aware of Adam’s psychiatric problems, but Father Patrick doesn’t push the issue with Adam and seems to accept Adam for who he is.

The last third of the movie has a lot of melodrama that’s typical of a teen romance movie, but with the added element of schizophrenia. Parker and Goggins give solid performances as the main parental figures in the story. However, Adam and Maya’s budding romance is the main draw of this movie, which goes in a lot of the expected directions for this adolescent love story. Fortunately, Plummer and Russell (who was a standout in the 2019 drama “Waves”) give very believable and emotionally genuine performances.

At times, “Words on Bathroom Walls” seems to use schizophrenia as merely just another plot device in the obligatory “obstacle/secret” that most romantic stories have to create conflict for the story’s couple. At other times, the movie does a fairly good job of portraying the frustration and loneliness that schizophrenics must feel when experiencing a delusional world that only they can see.

Some of the movie’s schizophrenic visual effects are a bit heavy-handed, but it’s to make a point that these delusions aren’t just quiet little thoughts that go away just by closing your eyes and trying to think of something else. “Words on Bathroom Walls” has some very formulaic ways of portraying the story’s teen romance, but the admirable performances from Plummer and Russell improve the quality of the film so that it’s not an ordinary teen movie.

LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions released “Words on Bathroom Walls” in select U.S. cinemas on August 21, 2020.