"MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE" — 2½ stars — Dylan O'Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario; PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and some thematic elements); in general release
Watching Wes Ball's "Maze Runner: The Death Cure" feels like watching the end of an era, and not just for the adaptations of James Dashner's novels. The Hunger Games is long gone, Divergent never actually finished and now, after an injury postponed production, the Maze Runner has crossed the finish line.
The third and final installment of the Maze Runner series feels like a step up from 2015's "Scorch Trials," but still struggles without the unique and focused concept of 2014's original film.
Thanks to the aforementioned injury to lead actor Dylan O'Brien, it has been a while since that second film, so here's a quick refresher on this post-apocalyptic, young adult franchise:
Thomas (O'Brien) is the leader of a small group of teens with a special immunity to an infection called the Flare, which has turned the majority of the human race into "28 Days Later"-style fast zombies called Cranks (as opposed to lumbering, "Night of the Living Dead"-style zombies). Kids like Thomas are hunted and exploited by a bureaucracy of human survivors called WCKD (World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department), who are trying to find a cure for the nonimmune and don't feel especially determined to be ethical about it.
At the end of the last film, Thomas was on the run with a group of rebels in the wilderness, his best friend Minho (Ki Hong Lee) had been captured by WCKD and his love interest Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) had been outed as a WCKD spy.
"Death Cure" starts with a bang — several, actually — as the rebel forces raid a WCKD transport train in a dramatic effort to rescue Minho. When the dust clears, they've rescued dozens of potential WCKD guinea pigs, but Minho isn't among them.
Enter Option B. Thomas believes that Minho is being held in a place called the Last City, a modern metropolis surrounded by a massive wall to keep out all the post-apocalyptic riffraff. Determined to save his friend, Thomas initially tries to mount a one-man rescue mission, but eventually teams up with old running mates Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden), as well as relatively new allies Brenda (Rosa Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito).
In the meantime, Teresa is working hard for WCKD, its leader Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) and Ava's more action-minded right-hand man Janson (Aidan Gillen). Teresa feels conflicted over her previous treachery but thinks that by finding a cure for the Flare, she might be able to justify those means.
Once Thomas and Co. arrive at the Last City, some help from unexpected sources reveals that getting in isn't all that hard, but rescuing Minho will be. And, as you might expect, that rescue will involve Teresa. But the greater risk involves an association with a rebel faction led by a deformed crusader named Lawrence (Walton Goggins), who is preparing for the kind of massive uprising that usually doesn't leave anyone standing.
This all builds to a third act that gets very dramatic, where "Death Cure" is served by some impassioned action and special effects that bring the series to a very dramatic pinnacle. The effort feels more purposeful than "Scorch Trials," but unfortunately Ball's film stumbles a bit near its conclusion, which feels too dragged out to be totally effective (the film's running time stretches well past two hours). And while the action sequences are heavy on adrenaline, too often they feel a little too perfect in their execution and strain believability.
The sum total should be entertaining for longtime fans of the series, but a little more time on the story and in the editing room might have made "Maze Runner: The Death Cure" a more worthy finale.
"Maze Runner: The Death Cure" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and some thematic elements; running time: 142 minutes.