A film review by Craig J. Koban February 5, 2018

MAZE RUNNER: 

THE DEATH CURE jjj
 

2018, PG-13, 145 mins.

 

Dylan O'Brien as Thomas  /  Thomas Brodie Sangster as Newt  /  Ki Hong Lee as Minho  /  Kaya Scodelario as Teresa Agnes  /  Rosa Salazar as Brenda  /  Giancarlo Esposito as Jorge  /  Will Poulter as Gally  /  Patricia Clarkson as Ava Paige  /  Aidan Gillen as Janson  /  Walton Goggins as Lawrence  /  Barry Pepper as Vince  /  Paul Lazenby as Guard

Directed by Wes Ball  /  Written by T.S. Nowlin, based on the book by James Dashner

As far as the very overcrowded and mostly mediocre young adult literary adaptation genre goes, I certainly thought that 2014's THE MAZE RUNNER - adapted from the dystopian sci-fi book series by James Dashner - was a most promising start to an intriguing new film franchise.  

That well oiled and consummately directed trilogy opener did a stellar job of harnessing its LORD OF THE FLIES themed narrative about a group of lost boys struggling to escape their mysterious imprisonment through a bafflingly complex labyrinth filled with mechanical monsters.  The problem with its sequel, 2015's THE SCORCH TRIALS, was that the world beyond the maze for these characters wasn't as compellingly rendered as the one within it.  And at a sometimes watch checking 130 minutes, that second MAZE RUNNER film did very little to propel the narrative forward with any sizeable and intriguing momentum.   

Now comes the long awaited and inevitable third film in the MAZE RUNNER series, the somewhat blandly titled THE DEATH CURE, which, to its very credit, wastes very little time with expositional particulars and thrusts viewers into this climatic installment's story with a never-look-back tenacity.  Improving on the overall pacing of its antecedent - but still sharing its bloated and unnecessarily long running time - THE DEATH CURE coasts by with a bit more urgency and dramatic interest this go around, and fans of Dashner's literary universe will certainly appreciate this film bringing everything to a relatively satisfying sense of closure.  Now, it could be aptly said that the story behind the making of THE DEATH CURE generated more headlines than the film itself; star Dylan O'Brien was horrifically injured during filming a stunt gone terribly wrong, which shut down the production and led to the film's delayed release by nearly a year.  Even though that terrible event casts a large ominous shadow over this sequel, THE DEATH CURE is nevertheless a solidly constructed and kind of thanklessly acted final entry in this series.  Despite some rough edges, this film is a far cry better than most YA fare that's out there battling for dominance at the cinemas. 

 

 

Still, while watching this outing's sensationally realized opening action sequence it's awfully hard not to think about its lead star visibly risking life and limb for the service of his craft.  In it we see Thomas (O'Brien) and fellow ex-Maze Runners turned freedom fighters engage in a daring attack/rescue mission that pits them against a fast moving locomotive, a stealthy futuristic plane armed to the teeth, and ample numbers of armed WCKD goons that are trying to defend their human cargo that are all immune to a humanity decimating "Flare" virus that has turned most people into zombies called "cranks" (yup - sigh - more movie zombies).  The kids are used by the self serving needs of the WCKD corporation to find a cure that could save the last vestiges of humanity.  Despite the fact that the film doesn't waste time by offering recaps of previous MAZE RUNNER outings, forgetful viewers may feel the need for a narrative roadmap immediately heading into THE DEATH CURE.  Still, director Wes Ball (returning after helming the first two films) displays such headstrong confidence and a strong sense of kinetic scale with this introductory scene (it's like MAD MAX and FAST AND FURIOUS light) that it's hard to nitpick.   

For those uninitiated that do require some semblance of a recap of the series, I'll briefly endeavor to do just that.  The first film began with ominous mystery as it introduced us to a semi-amnesiac Thomas that was placed within a gated community of other adolescents by WCKD (BTW: gotta love the subtlety of that acronym), a black ops scientific organization that was using Thomas and his fellow maze runners as experimental guinea pigs to research why they've become immune to the Flare virus.  As Thomas and his clan survived the hardships of escaping the maze and realized that the world beyond it was a post-apocalyptic hellscape covered with infected cranks, they decided to go on the offensive to take on one of the leaders of WCKD, Dr. Paige (Patricia Clarkson), head on, which eventually culminated in the aforementioned rescue mission that begins THE DEATH CURE.  Thomas wants to free all of the kids subjugated by the doctor's experiments, but he really wants to save one of his BFFs in Minho (Ki Hong Lee), whose been in their custody for some time.  Thomas soon realizes that Minho is actually cooped up at the central WCKD headquarters in the last surviving city on Earth, which has nearly impenetrable military defenses and is surrounded by an equally impermeable wall that keeps out those human hungry cranks.  With failure not being an option, Thomas decides to launch a daring and extremely risky infiltration mission into this lost city, which is complicated by the meddling of Dr. Paige's goon enforcer, Jansen (Aidan Gillen), and - dammit!! - Thomas' former maze runner lover, now traitor Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) that's working in concert with the enemy. 

Perhaps one of THE MAZE RUNNER franchise's unsung heroes is Wes Ball himself, who manages in all of its installments - even the somewhat lackluster THE SCORCH TRIALS - to make these films look and feel far more epically engineered than their otherwise low budgets would relay.  Even when plotting speed bumps hold these films back, Ball remains steadfastly committed to generating ample tension and energy in his set pieces, all shot and choreographed with commendable levels of precision and, most importantly, clarity.  In a relative cinematic world of so many uninspired YA films that all feel like they're cheaply regurgitating the blueprints of other better films before them, Ball should be credited with giving THE DEATH CURE and the previous MAZE RUNNER films a sense of aesthetic flare that keeps them moving.  At a scant $60 million budget (pretty much peanuts in this day and age), THE DEATH CURE looks as consummately polished as films three times its cost. 

It could be argued that THE DEATH CURE and THE SCORCH TRIALS are perhaps too action focused for their own good, especially considering the deeper psychological underpinnings that intriguingly laid the groundwork in the first MAZE RUNNER episode.  Still, THE DEATH CURE has fun with its multiple moments of foot and car chases, fights, and gun battles, during which time things get blown up in all matters Michael Bayian.  Ball shows unbridled creativity, though, in some cases, like a preposterously silly, but preposterously thrilling moment featuring a crane and a bus filled with screaming immune children that's one of the film's giddy highlights (and ends with a well placed sight gag to ease tension).  THE DEATH CURE may not have the thematic complexity and character driven drama of THE MAZE RUNNER, but as a jam packed action heavy sci-fi thriller...it delivers on intended promises. 

And the performances here are intensely focused and more layered than typically found in this well worn genre.  The 26-year-old O'Brien has matured as a young lead actor since the first film's release, and here he shows a dedicated drive with Thomas that helps make him such an easy protagonist of rooting interest.  I only wished that these films gave their villains more to do.  Patricia Clarkson has been regrettably saddled with a vaguely defined baddie that seems both underwritten on the page and underutilized in the film to make a sizable and lasting dent, not to mention that Aidan Gillen's zealot-like tyrant is pretty one note and lacking in complexity.  Kaya Scodelario is a fetching actress and has palpable chemistry with O'Brien, but Teresa's core relationship with Thomas goes down painfully predictable arcs that are not nearly as emotionally potent and this film thinks they are.  That, and the is she bad or is she good subplot plays out with numbing predictability. 

And at a - holy hell! - whopping 145 minutes, there's a defendable claim to be made that THE DEATH CURE goes on way, way too long and makes viewers feel like they're trapped in their own inescapable maze while in the cinema.   When all is said and done, not much actually happens in the story; the film is one big series of action set pieces in search of a climax.  A 30 minute shorter edit would have made this entry more tolerable.  And maybe - just maybe - the public's overall appetite for these types of YA films has diminished in the years since THE MAZE RUNNER'S release, which leaves THE DEATH CURE coming out a bit too late for its own welcome.  However, I can't deny the stellar craft that went into this finale, and the actors give it their proverbial all and really invest in their characters and make you care.  Overall, I don't think that THE DEATH CURE enthralled me as much as the franchise's introductory chapter, but it's a far cry more agreeable than its problematic middle one.  And considering that this trilogy ender...well...ends the story of Thomas and company without shamefully and manipulatively setting up future movies to come, I left the theater feeling more than content.  

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