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Maze Runner: The Death Cure

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The Maze Runner films exist in a rather strange section of the YA adaptation niche set up by the trailblazing Hunger Games series. A veritable turducken of post-apocalyptic story tropes (natural disasters, private governmental control, zombies, humanity-threatening epidemic), it started out as a surprisingly poignant parable on what it means to go from a child to an adult.

While this conclusion to that same story doesn’t carry the same deftness of theme, it also doesn’t carry the wonky juggling act that its follow-up The Scorch Trials was stuck with. Things are already looking up with how this wasn’t turned into yet another two-part finale like Harry Potter, Twilight and the now-stillborn Divergent series, and it only gets better from there.

Leading man Dylan O’Brien may fall into the background at times, but he’s bolstered by how everyone around him is on their A-game. From Ki Hong Lee selling the virtual hell he’s stuck in, to Thomas Brodie-Sangster giving the film incredibly dramatic moments, to Kaya Scodelario managing to salvage questionable character decisions from Scorch Trials and turning them into a product of complexity rather than idiocy.

Through them, the immediately tense action scenes hit that much harder, allowing the audience to bask in the chaos going on around them. Some of the bigger moments do hinge on extremely good luck on the part of the characters, with someone showing up just in the nick of time to make things work.

However, between the highly memorable and effective set pieces like the tunnel full of Cranks and the urban hellfire of a finale, along with the pleasantly smooth pacing, those contrivances don’t linger long enough to be a major drawback.

As a conclusion to the story of the Gladers and their fight against the evil corporation WCKD (World Catastrophe Killzone Department, a name that never stops being silly), it wraps up the franchise’s aspirations as thinly-veiled allegory for the responsibilities of adulthood.

But this is something more than that. This film is the final breath of life for an entire sub-genre, the last entry from the film franchises that spawned in the wake of Hunger Games back in 2012. Rather than preparing its audience for life post-adolescence, this seems to prepare us for life post-post-apocalyptic teenage fantasy.

While most of the world is officially burnt out on this latest wave of book adaptations, it seems like the main lessons of that wave concerning how the next generation must be the guardians of tomorrow have been listened to.

One of the bigger recurring trends of last year’s cinematic crop was how children/teenagers are often more adult than the actual adults (It, Jasper Jones, The Book Of Henry, The Glass Castle, etc.) With this film’s grounded but hopeful denouement, it looks like whatever may come next, we are more prepared for it than ever.

 
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American Assassin

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“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world.”

That’s a quote from Neal Stephenson’s excellent science fiction novel, Snow Crash, and it’s the thesis – one of them, at least – of American Assassin, the new techno-thriller from director Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger), based on the series of novels by the late Vince Flynn.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is the subject of that thesis, a normal American dude who dedicates his life to wiping out terrorism after his fiancee is murdered in front of him during an attack on a Spanish beachside resort, mere minutes after he proposed to her. Our man Rapp spends 18 months turning himself into an Arabic-speaking, intel-gathering, killing machine, and is all set to pull the trigger on the evil mastermind of his woes when he’s snatched up by Sanaa Lathan’s shady CIA Deputy Director and folded into a black ops program which will hopefully channel his aggression in more politically desirable directions.

In practice that means we get a training sequence under the steely tutelage of Michael Keaton’s Navy SEAL instructor, which is pretty enjoyable because Old Michael Keaton is great. Then the plot kicks in, and we’re on an international hunt for a quantity of missing weapons grade plutonium, swiped by a ruthless mercenary known as the Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, giving the best performance in this thing). He’s American, he knows their tactics better than they do… could he be Mitch’s Dark Shadow ™?

If you think that sounds dumb, you’re right, and it’s not even the silliest element of American Assassin, which plays out like an alternate version of the Jason Bourne flicks where the Treadstone assassination program are the good guys. On a plot level, it’s a dumb run ‘n’ gun that treats espionage and tradecraft like an MMA steel cage match, bouncing from fight to chase to fight to predictable revelation to fight.

On a thematic level, it’s worse. The film can’t figure out whether our man Mitch needs to learn how to follow orders for the greater good, or if his willingness to go off the playbook and Do Whatever It Takes is his chief asset – which is weird considering it’s explicitly stated as the reason why The Ghost was not up to scratch (if the penny doesn’t drop about his origins early on, god help you). For all that the film sets up Mitch and Ghost to mirror each other, it’s not narratively or politically sophisticated enough to make the leap to the inherent irony that a clearly radicalised young American man has dedicated his life to hunting radicalised young Muslim men, instead cleaving to the notion that fanatical white people are inherently more palatable than fanatical brown people.

Still, if you can ignore the politics, or even align with them, there’s fun to be had here, albeit of a simple and sadistic nature. American Assassin, like Olympus Has Fallen, revels in showing bodily harm (interestingly, Olympus director Antoine Fuqua was once attached); the film is peppered with closeups of flesh being pierced with bullets, slashed with knives, burnt, and torn – at one point a pair of pliers meets some fingernails and the camera lingers just that little too long for the squeamish. The action is competently, efficiently staged, although there’s nothing on display to make, say, John Wick‘s Stahelski and Leitch worry about their pole position, and the whole thing ends with a big, dangling sequel hook, which is only to be expected – there are, after all, 12 books in the series, with more to come.

If you’re in an undemanding mood and a fan of the genre, American Assassin ticks enough boxes to make it worth a cheap seat. Charitably, it feels like an ’80s action movie throwback, with all the bombast and political naivety that implies. Whether that’s gonna work for you or not is something you already know.