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Of all the dystopian young adult franchises that "The Hunger Games" hath wrought, the "Maze Runner" series has been the one of the most forthrightly entertaining — and the sweatiest. But that sweat is evidence of what makes it work.

As directed by Wes Ball, "Maze Runner: The Death Cure" takes off at a full sprint and never slows down. Initially, at least, it can be a pleasantly pummeling experience, an adrenaline-drenched ride delivered by the capable hands of Ball, with the appealingly energetic star Dylan O'Brien.

The franchise — of which this is the third and ostensibly final film — brings a boyish, impish energy to the teen apocalypse genre. "The Hunger Games" was nakedly emotional, each tragedy channeled through the primal scream of Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss. "Divergent" was always too fastidious, cold and remote to connect.

"Maze Runner" brings the grime and grit to the race for survival in a dystopian post-civilization. And as we discovered in the second film, "The Scorch Trials," this apocalyptic tale is actually a zombie movie, which gives the whole enterprise that much more bite.

The first film was plainly task-oriented — a bunch of teens dropped into a mysterious glade have to try to escape through a maze every day — and the series never loses sight of the ethos. The maze is metaphorical rather than physical now, as Thomas (O'Brien) tries to escape the maze of a crumbling civilization and the evil corporation WICKED.

All Thomas can do is run, and run he does. His goal to simply get out with all his friends alive proves to be difficult when he and his team of rebels hijack the wrong train car, leaving his friend Minho (Ki Hong Lee) to withstand torturous trials at WICKED headquarters. When Thomas sets off on a rescue mission, things are complicated when he discovers his former flame Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) is working for WICKED.

The plot isn't all that complex, though the path is riddled with obstacles, including an uprising at the walls of the city, old friends from the Glade popping up left and right and an army of super-soldiers. Ball and screenwriter T.S. Nowlin keep a tight grip on the tone and the relentless pace, but they often back the story into corners that only a deus ex machina can fix. It gets to be a bit contrived.

As the film pushes the two-hour, 20-minute mark, it devolves into a seizure-inducing mass of strobe lighting and noise. It's overwhelming, numbing and exhausting.


Maze Runner: The Death Cure

★★½ out of 4 stars

Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, language and some thematic elements.