Maze Runner movies are like that bus from Speed: Everything’s fine when it’s hurtling along, but once it slows down, things get deadly. Often made with more vigor and vision than you might expect but never quite edging too close to “compelling” or “good,” Wes Ball’s glum-and-run film trilogy adapts novelist James Dashner’s YA dystopia into something resembling terse, tough, direct-to-streaming action thrillers — just barely edited down to a PG-13.
Out goes most of the characterization, the relationships, the coming of age, the crises of the soul. In come hurtling scenes of dazzlingly hunky young people dashing down corridors and through warehouses and the streets of ruined cities, pursued by maze monsters (in the first film) or cheapjack zombies (in the sequels). In their coordinated cotton separates, the cast members run, with Cruise-ian power and intensity, and the camera keeps pace with them, capturing bodies in motion with a smooth clarity that shouldn’t be so notable.
During the protracted sequences of flight and fight, speed and brutal impact, the Maze Runner movies run circles around most studio action films. Witness the brawl in a skyscraper that has fallen over but remained somewhat structurally intact in The Scorch Trials, the second movie. Heroes Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and Brenda (Rosa Salazar) battle leaping zombie dudes in a stairwell tilted at 90 degrees, until Brenda gets knocked into an office on the building’s underside, sliding down the steep inclined floor to crash into the windows that now serve as floor. A desert of ruins and zombies stretches beneath her — and the glass begins to crack.
Yes, the glass gag is cribbed from Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Everything in Maze Runner films is borrowed. But Ball makes each punch and crash legible and exciting, makes the absurd physics of movie fights persuasive. The latest film, the long-delayed The Death Cure, opens with a train heist that suggests, at once, the Mad Max films, the Fast & Furious franchise, and The Wild Bunch by way of Young Guns by way of a Gap ad. The sequence is as propulsive as it is absurd — the heroes’ plan involves twice knowing precisely where two speeding vehicles will each stop in a desert wasteland — but Ball sells it through brio and attention to detail. As the bullets fly, he wrings tension from practicalities, such as the time it takes to hack open a lock or to separate train cars or to rig up a grappling hook.
The Death Cure, I fear, has fewer of these sensational stretches than The Scorch Trials did. For much of its running time, that middle film was essentially plotless, its characters literally running from Point A to Point B, discovering how wrecked their world is, and then running once the explosions start. This final entry is obliged to reveal mysteries, wrap up the story and dispense with the most half-assed love triangle since I had two go-nowhere crushes at the same time in high school. So the fight/flight gives way to portentous chatter between characters who, over three movies, have yet to develop singular traits. Here’s a spoiler: In this installment, one pal of the hero gets more lines after his death than he seems to have had in the previous seven hours of Maze Runners combined.
If you get it only from the movies, the Maze Runner mythology remains confounding, a mashup of Lord of the Flies, TV’s Survivor, The Hunger Games, first-person-shooter video games and every grubby movie genre from apocalypse to zombie. Solar flares have devastated Earth and somehow released a virus that turns the remaining population into thoughtless and bloodthirsty “cranks.” Meanwhile, in a walled safe zone, a company called, uh, WICKED has been running teenagers who may have been hatched in a laboratory through a colossal concrete death-trap labyrinth — in search of a cure to the virus. (WICKED stands for “World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department,” which is even funnier when you realize that these movies do not have jokes in them.)
Now, in The Death Cure, young survivors elect to put off their boat trip to an island haven in order to break into WICKED’s headquarters to save one of their own — handsome Minho (Ki Hong Lee), who apparently never fails to find himself hair product, even in the wasteland, even when locked up for weeks as mad scientists’ guinea pig. (Lee finds more opportunity than the other cast members to express human feeling — pain, fear, a soulful rage — between the action.)
The series’ borrowings often have about them a whiff of playful improvisation, the logic of kids with action figures saying, “And what if then they had to drive into that tunnel from The Stand and it was full of zombies?” As The Death Cure grinds on, though, they become less inspired. Tasked with finding a route into the walled city of WICKED, the heroes — who are being hunted by the company — turn up at the front gates, amid a mob of refugees. Just as in The Hunger Games, carnage ensues. The block-by-block urban warfare that drags down the final hour also suggests similar scenes from Mockingjay. Meanwhile, the kids, after beating the villains for two movies, suddenly have lost all sense of tactics: I lost track of the number of times the heroes get flanked or captured by the enemy only to be saved by some out-of-nowhere contrivance. (In this regard, The Death Cure even beats Rogue One, which found its rebel heroes getting surrounded by enemies in the streets of Jeddah four times in four minutes.)
Gleaming yet lifeless, WICKED’s city is the series’ most entrancing setting, beating out the less convincing maze of the first film and the too-obviously computer-generated ruins of The Scorch Trials. But what happens in and beneath its towers is Maze Runner’s least fleet action yet. Expect long confrontations freighted by backstory and villain-versus-hero showdowns with every beat that you can call too many seconds beforehand.
There are surprises, but of the dopey kind. Question for the filmmakers: I appreciate the hero’s good fortune that, after the apocalypse, WICKED still bothered to maintain outside its skyscraper office the world’s deepest reflecting pool, but how did the heroes find access to the world’s largest and most agile crane?