One of the more surprising things about the surprisingly entertaining third and final installment in the Maze Runner series is that it’s an action movie that uses its action to explore character. Or even just that it’s an action movie full stop: most YA franchises have focused on world-building and character-based drama, two things this film is barely interested in. It’s a generic post-apocalyptic world with only one modern city left and the story is barely more than a series of escalating rescue attempts. This breakneck pace occasionally leads to some head-scratching moments – one previously dead character returns with the explanation “I wasn’t dead – you just left me for dead”, while another important character introduces himself as “a businessman” and then in his next (and final) scene blows himself up for reasons that make no business sense whatsoever – but these are good plot problems to have, because they mean this is a movie that isn't interested in slowing down.
All you really need to know here is that on one side are Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), sidekicks Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden), and hard driving love interest Brenda (Rosa Salazar) trying to rescue bestie Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from the baddies, who include evil scientist Ava (Patricia Clarkson), evil thug Janson (Aiden Gillen) and possibly evil former gal pal Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). The bad guys are pretty bad, and not just because their corporation is called WCKD: they’re torturing kids who are immune to the mutant-zombie creating Flare Virus because tortured teens give off brain chemicals that could maybe be used to make a cure.
(there’s an interesting question there about the ends justifying the means and so on, but this is too busy blowing things up to do more than occasionally wave in that general direction)
Usually a film like this would get less interesting the further away it moved from the central events of the story (to be fair, this film's minimalist approach to its characters does mean that the rare moments of drama between them carries real weight). “Action” in the old Hollywood sense of actions carried out by the lead characters (shoot-outs, blowing up bridges and so on) has largely been replaced by increasingly generic and special effects-heavy “spectacle” designed to look impressive but tell us almost nothing about the characters taking part, as seen in pretty much every superhero movie this decade.
It’s only recently (and largely confined to the John Wick films in cinemas) that we’ve seen even a slight return to the idea that how a character operates in an action sequence might actually tell us something about them as a human being. Ideally action sequences in blockbusters should function the same way as musical numbers in musicals – the story is suspended to move into an area of pure cinema that gives us an insight into the character’s inner life – but in practice stunts and CGI take precedent almost every time.
Here though, the constant action (generally well handled by director Wes Ball, even if the bad guys can't shoot straight) actually does illuminate the differences between characters. WCKD city is repeatedly presented to us as a maze-like collection of streets and corridors, which makes sense considering trapping teens in a maze was the whole point of their evil scheme in the first film. But time and time again while the bad guys operate in two dimensions our heroes work in three: on at least three occasions where it looks like the bad guys have trapped Thomas and company they escape by moving vertically out of a previously horizontal situation.
Partly that's simply because moving up or dropping down makes for a cool visual. But it also makes sense for who the heroes are and the world they want to create: if you’ve been trained to fight by being trapped in a maze, your idea of escape isn’t going to be running down more corridors or roads, but soaring over them. It’s no surprise then that the one character here who straddles both worlds is eventually presented with an escape that requires them to move from the horizontal to the vertical, the whole film building to a moment where survival literally requires them to embrace a new way of moving through the world.
Which is pretty impressive considering it's also the same "you gotta jump now!" action movie climax we've seen a thousand times before.