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Overlong ‘Maze Runner: The Death Cure’ borrows from the culture wars

Dylan O’Brien (left) and Thomas Brodie-Sangster star in "The Maze Runner: The Death Cure." | 20TH CENTURY FOX

If ever a movie desperately demanded a “Previously on…” opening, it’s “Maze Runner: The Death Cure.”

The action-adventure franchise based on James Dashner’s post-apocalyptic young-adult novels enjoyed a nice groove after the first two movies, even surpassing the hit “Hunger Games” in quality. Then an accident happened with “Maze” star Dylan O’Brien on the “Death Cure” set, shutting down production and causing a delay of nearly a year, slowing that momentum.

Thankfully O’Brien’s back as rugged youngster/chosen one Thomas, throwing himself into derring-do yet also dealing with ethical quandaries in “Death Cure.” But while the third chapter is certainly entertaining — and quite explosive — it’s definitely lost some steam.

This one’s an overlong affair that any other books-to-movies franchise probably would have tried to stretch into two projects. There’s just not enough stuff to warrant a fourth film, and too much exposition to wrap up in two and a half hours.

After escaping a dangerous maze in the first film, Thomas (O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and friends navigated the desolate hellscape of what’s left of America in “The Scorch Trials,” the result of the Flare virus that zombified most of the population. The evil corporation WCKD is doing horrifying tests on teenagers like Thomas who are immune to the disease to try to find a cure, and they’ve holed up behind gigantic walls in a utopian metropolis known as Last City.

The bright lights and high-class civilization of Last City contrasted with the rising rebellion of the unwashed masses outside gives “Death Cure” a whiff of culture-war relevance for anybody paying attention to the news lately. Thomas needs to break his old pal Minho (Ki Hong Lee) out of WCKD’s clutches and so doing comes face to face with love interest Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who seemingly betrayed Thomas and her friends to work with the bad guys at the end of “Scorch Trials.” So, yeah, there’s some drama.

The new movie begins with a speeding train heist and features set pieces with falling buildings, riotous chaos and airborne buses, and director Wes Ball definitely gets to do more with blockbuster-style action than in the previous “Maze Runner” films. The tighter storytelling of those chapters comes undone with a glut of characters and various plot threads.

The core group of young cast members gives a rugged vibrancy to the heroic goings-on, and the old folks aren’t too shabby either. Giancarlo Esposito’s resistance leader Jorge and Patricia Clarkson’s complicated WCKD guru Ava unfortunately don’t get enough to do. But Aidan Gillen oozes punchable antagonism as Ava’s No. 2 Janson, and Walton Goggins shows up as a noseless, scarred underworld figure with whom you want to immediately spend the rest of the movie.

A bit bloated, “Death Cure” does have the salve for what ails a lot of YA series (and franchises in general): It embraces finishing one well-told, finite story and never loses that focus with a bunch of narrative gymnastics. While the final “Runner” is a rough go at times, it nevertheless sticks the landing, with a forgivable bit of wobble.

Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

★★1⁄2

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Wes Ball and written by T.S. Nowlin, based on ‘The Death Cure’ by James Dashner. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some thematic elements). Running time: 120 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.