The past few years have been a rather dystopian era for dystopian YA film adaptations. After “The Hunger Games” became a genuine phenomenon, studios went on a spending spree, scouring increasingly indistinguishable tales of chosen ones and oppressive government regimes for potential franchises, with decidedly mixed results. Ever since Jennifer Lawrence called time on Katniss, “Divergent” has fizzled out rather ignominiously; “Ender’s Game” and “The 5th Wave” proved to be nonstarters; and after a delayed production that saw series lead Dylan O’Brien injured in an on-set accident, “Maze Runner: The Death Cure,” the third and final entry in Fox’s adaptations of James Dashner’s books, finally arrives this month with relatively little fanfare. Somewhat surprisingly, however, “Maze Runner’s” core team – including original series director Wes Ball – have rallied to give this once middling saga a proper sending-off. Downplaying some of the property’s sillier elements when not jettisoning them entirely, and streamlining the narrative into a rousing and at times even emotional action film, “Death Cure” is the most successful entry in the franchise by far. It may be too late to turn the cultural tide on the genre, but it comes as a relief to see at least one series manage to stick the landing.
Perhaps mindful that the film is unlikely to attract many newcomers at this point, “Death Cure” devotes almost no time to catching audiences up on the events of 2014’s “The Maze Runner” and 2015’s “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.” For those with short memories, our hero Thomas (O’Brien) is still hard at work fighting an evil, quasi-governmental agency known as WCKD, which imprisoned him and a slew of comparably good-looking youngsters in a monster-filled labyrinth called “The Glade” in the first film, then pursued them across a harsh desert wasteland in the second. They did this as part of a needlessly complicated strategy to fight a massive global pandemic known as “The Flare,” which turns the infected into mindless zombie-like creatures called cranks. The poor kids imprisoned in the maze (they call themselves “Gladers”) are immune to the Flare virus’ effects, and WCKD’s head pair of sinister scientists (Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson) subject them to various nefarious procedures to try to extract a cure from their blood.
This underlying concept, as revealed at the end of the first film and elaborated upon endlessly in the second, is all exceedingly daft – and the more the series’ mythology expands, the daffier it tends to get. But it’s here that “Death Cure” makes its most surprising choice: it barely concerns itself with the particulars of the whole conspiracy at all. Instead, what we get is essentially an old-school jailbreak movie, and director Ball wastes zero time flexing his action chops, kicking off the film with a solidly executed train robbery sequence. The robbers in question are Thomas and his trusty Glader buddies Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden), as well sardonic resistance fighters Brenda (Rosa Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito). Their target is a train full of young prisoners headed to a WCKD facility, among them the group’s captured comrade Minho (Ki Hong Lee). They manage to rescue a car full of kids successfully, but Minho is not among them – he’s been taken to WCKD headquarters in this wasteland’s mythical last bastion of civilization, the appropriately named Last City.
The gang all pledge to rescue their friend or die trying. The Last City, which they reach after some rote zombie-fighting, essentially resembles a landlocked Hong Kong, its gleaming skyscrapers surrounded by massive, heavily fortified walls that keep the filthy rabble living in shantytowns below from entering. (“The walls are new – I guess that’s WCKD’s answer to everything,” Esposito’s Jorge says, in one of several moments that seem to draw fairly explicit parallels to the Trump administration.) Inside, Minho is suffering through WCKD’s various laboratory tortures, all carried out by a onetime Glader and previous Thomas love interest-turned-traitor, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario).
Struggling to find a way inside, Thomas and company fall in with a mysterious, gruesomely scarred resistance figure (Walton Goggins), as well as an unexpected returning character from the first film. Once they finally breach the city walls, the film comes to life. While “Death Cure’s” sweeping aerial shots still rely on obvious computer graphics, the street-level city scenes are among the series’ most fully realized and effectively designed, from the propaganda videos broadcasting on electric billboards to the half-glimpsed arrests of the suspected infected on teeming street corners. While not as visually resplendent as “The Hunger Games’” Capitol, the Last City is a believable rendering of a post-apocalyptic metropolis, and the care that went into sketching the setting pays off when the city devolves into an all-out warzone in the film’s final act.
“Death Cure” can certainly fall victim to overkill – the climax drags out several scenes longer than it has to; the thunderous sound design grows deadening with one explosion after another – and there are more than a few key plot turns that seem to have lost some important context in the transition to the screen. But damned if Ball doesn’t pull off some impressive firefights and last-minute escapes once the action gets humming. “The Maze Runner” was Ball’s first film, and his ability to craft comprehensible setpieces has steadily improved throughout the trilogy.
So too have the performances. Salazar once again proves herself to be an action hero in the making, given much more to do here than in “The Scorch Trials,” while Gillen hones his previously ridiculous antagonist into a properly hissable villain. O’Brien – who, to be fair, was rarely asked to do more than look alternately determined and terrified as he dodged countless terrors in the previous films – has noticeably matured as an actor here, and he sells the film’s emotional beats with a good deal of charisma. Brodie-Sangster has his moments, and Scodelario manages to get across a character of more complicated motivations than one usually sees in films of this ilk. Ironically, this cast has finally started to gel into a group you wouldn’t mind spending time with, just as they’re preparing to say goodbye. Well, better late than never.