After Sundance, I like to clean out my system with a dumb and fun action film that always seems to be released in January to act as a reset from the self-seriousness that comes with Sundance. Last year, the first film I saw after Sundance was xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (which by the way is incredible) and this year I settled on the final installment of the most gonzo take on the wave of young-adult dystopia franchises, Maze Runner: The Death Cure. And you know what? I had a great time!
These films, and especially this last one, make all the right changes and tweaks to avoid falling too far into the tired tropes and cliches of its genre. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s not to say its without stakes and moments, but rather than be self-serious like the others it just has fun with it. It also dodges the pitfalls of the love triangle we see so often, the moments of romance are few and far between, they don’t insert themselves into the film without warrant. They didn’t split and stretch the material out into two final films, they kept it all in one and it keeps the film at a healthy pace despite its long runtime. But most of all, these films are the weird version of the teen dystopia trend and I admire them for it. And for what it’s worth, they’re the only franchise in their subgenre who kept the same filmmaker for each film in Wes Ball, allowing the films to grow with his talents.
One of the things I like about these films is that I have no clue how to explain the premise of them, they’re just wacky. A devastating virus that turns people into a cross between zombies and crackheads (I mean the slang term for them is “cranks” for crying out loud) has ravaged the world? The evil organization that these teens are fighting has the least subtle name around in WCKD? For some reasons these teens hold the cure because WCKD trapped them in an impossible maze to solve? I honestly don’t really know, but I also don’t really care because these films are just so bonkers and fun.
After we saw American Assassin last year, my buddy Huston just went “You know what? Fuck it. Give me more Dylan O’Brien action hero films.” I carried that sentiment watching Maze Runner. You can tell O’Brien is actually doing a lot of these stunts and fight choreography which I admire. I’ve had stock in O’Brien since I started watching him kill it on Teen Wolf as Stiles, and I’m all here for him to become an action hero. Plus, I would really like for there to be an action hero who spells his name the same way I do. Another aspect I love about these films is they pack it full of of all these great character actors like Walton Goggins, Barry Pepper, Giancarlo Esposito and Aiden Gillen. Gillen is having a blast as a quasi-scooby doo villain, every other scene is him going “DAMN THESE MEDDLING TEENS!” I’ll happily watch Gillen sleaze it up any day.
While this final installment is an overall step up for the films, it’s also a huge step up for Wes Ball as a craftsman of a filmmaker, especially when it comes to the action. He shows his chops immediately, beginning the film with a 15-minute train hijack sequence that is really impressive – like if George Miller was directing it for a minute. He’s using practical effects and putting his actors through physical stunt work, and not hiding the choreography in quick cuts and editing. You really get the feeling that there’s a physicality and reality to the fight scenes and action sequences. Even when they are totally bonkers sequences – a crane lifts a bus out of a firefight and knocks over some baddies with it – it still feels strangely grounded in an impressive manner. In the last act there are some massive battle scenes taking place that Ball films exceptionally stunningly, letting them play out in unbroken handheld takes. The level of filmmaking in the action sequences are just a real cut above what you would expect for these types of films. Wes Ball has made it onto the list of filmmakers that have my permission to make a Fast & Furious film. It’s been fun to watch Wes Ball grow over these films as a craftsman, I really want to see him direct more action.
This film and its franchise may not be artful viewings, but good lord are they fun. They’re just weird and bonkers, eschewing the tropes just enough to reach some level of freshness and originality. They’re craftily made, and embrace fun and adrenaline over moody, dour tones. They are perhaps the most unique films in their extremely tired genre, and I just had a blast watching them.