‘Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials’ moves too fast to tell a story

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By Bill Goodykoontz | Gannett News Service

Hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait.

That’s what “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” is like. Except that the wait here is for the third installment in the series, which might provide a layer of meaning to the frenzied action here. Director Wes Ball’s film is a mad dash from one place to the next, with little time in-between for rest, recuperation or plot development.

Not that there’s anything wrong with hyper-kinetic action. “Speed” never stopped, because it couldn’t. But that was a simple premise: If they slowed down or stopped, the bus would blow up, and Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock with it.

As you may recall from “The Maze Runner,” the first movie in this franchise (Ball also directed), things here aren’t that simple. In the first film (like all of them, based on James Dashner’s young-adult novels), a teenager named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) found himself with other teenagers in the heart of an ever-changing maze, guarded by mechanical scorpion-like creatures. No one knew why they were there, and survival required a “Lord of the Flies”-like social order.

Thomas, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), along with a few others, made it out alive. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but if you’re checking in to the second installment of a franchise, you ought to know what happened in the first one.)

Little was explained in the first film, and what explanations we got weren’t satisfying. We know that the World Catastrophe Killzone Department, or WCKD, was the group responsible for putting them in the maze. A plague has swept the earth, turning its victims into “Cranks,” which are basically zombies, and WCKD is trying to figure out a cure.

Yes, WCKD. As in, “wicked.” You know, really bad. Subtlety is not a strong suit here, but the name is truth in advertising, if nothing else. WCKD will stop at nothing to find a cure for the plague, figuring the greater good is worth any cost.

Thomas and Teresa and the others didn’t agree. They got out of the maze at the end of the first film; now they are in a military-like compound, under the command of Janson (Aidan Gillen). Teens from other mazes are there, too, and every day Janson calls out a few names for release, a lucky few who go back to their normal lives of happy-go-lucky teenager business and …

Maybe not. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if Thomas didn’t have to lead a big escape, so he does, with the assistance of Aris (Jacob Lofland), a survivor from another maze.

Off they go, with a vague plan to make it to the mountains and meet up with the Right Arm, a rebel group fighting WCKD. But they will have to make it through the Scorch, a desert that claims many victims. As deserts do.

They also have to survive run-ins with Cranks (the zombies, not irritable people) and a visit to the lair of Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito, channeling  Javier Bardem in “Skyfall”) and his lieutenant, Brenda (Rosa Salazar). Jorge’s a businessman who likes to blast Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” during battle (a rather inspired bit, actually). He’s certainly willing to sell Thomas and the others back to WCKD if the teenagers don’t have anything to offer, but circumstances change and Jorge and Brenda wind up on the run along with the others.

Allegiances are made, promises are broken and bad guys chase good guys (more of that than anything else). We’re between Olympic games, so if you’re desperate to see people run and jump, this is something, maybe. But other than the people we’re rooting for trying to get away for most of the movie, not much happens in terms of developing the story. It’s just a placeholder for the next film.

Hurry up and wait, did we say? How about running to stand still, instead.

[s3r star=1.5/4]

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Wes Ball and written by T.S. Nowlin, based on a novel by James Dashner. Running time: 131 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for extended sequences of violence and action, some thematic elements, substance use and language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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