Maze Runner: The Death Cure & Den of Thieves
Bruce Steele: While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the 5-hour-plus double feature the Movie Guys sat through this week, both Den of Thieves and Maze Runner: The Death Cure offer at least a solid 90 minutes of entertainment squeezed in their 140-minute running times. Which would be your pick for moviegoers caught up on their Oscar-related viewing?
Edwin Arnaudin: Den of Thieves by a fairly significant margin. It’s the rougher, more violent of the two but also the one that held my attention to a stronger degree. The Death Cure is one of the best made YA dystopian films I’ve seen, though I found it difficult to care about the characters and their struggles. How about you?
Bruce: Death Cure is better than its predecessor in the Maze Runner series, but that’s a low bar. So I too will take Den of Thieves. I enjoyed the scheming and posturing and over-the-top gun battles, even if I did need to wash off a heavy film of testosterone when it was over. Gerard Butler, playing a tough, tattooed cop, seemed to be channeling mid-‘90s Mel Gibson.
Edwin: I didn’t make the Gibson connection during the film, but you’re absolutely right. After a string of lousy decisions and legitimately offensive performances (especially in the ___ Has Fallen series), Butler fits nicely into this extreme macho world. His Nick O’Brien is a bear of a man — a believable head of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office's major crimes unit, surrounded by like-minded comrades. But as with many cops and robbers films, I found the criminals more engaging.
Bruce: Agreed. O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing the getaway driver whom the cops try to turn into an informant, has taken up his dad Ice Cube’s gauntlet as the sensitive tough guy, and he may have the best role, especially in the nicely complicated heist. I wasn’t previously familiar with Pablo Schreiber, who plays ice-for-blood Ray Merrimen, the head crook, but I’d be happy to see more of him.
Edwin: They’re all so intense! Even clueless Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as Ray’s mumble-mouthed best friend Enson Levoux, who provides perhaps the film’s funniest scene when he has a heart-to-heart with his daughter’s prom date. I could do without scenes of Nick’s turbulent home life, but the consistent air of mystery surrounding the bank robbers’ plans and the immersive shootouts kept me hooked.
Bruce: The three robberies and the action finale are all really engaging and so clearly told, despite the abundance of characters and the busy camera, which is a feat for first-time director Christian Gudegast, a screenwriter (including here) and rap video director. But there’s a lot of fat in between. I’d say the same applies to The Death Cure: The action sequences are impressive, but interpersonal stuff all falls flat.
Edwin: From the opening "Year of the Train”-certified rescue mission aboard a rail transport, it’s clear that director Wes Ball has upped his visual game from the series’ previous two films. The production design of the walled off city in which much of the film takes place — basically a clean, shiny version of the L.A. in the Blade Runner movies — but yes, it all feels like marking time with a bunch of battles until the survivors find their inevitable Eden. Why isn’t their predicament more interesting?
Bruce: This series has always been hampered by its premise: The boys who meet in the giant maze in the first movie have all had their memories wiped, so they haven’t got much at stake: no loved ones, no allegiances. Lead “maze runner” Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) got a few thin flashbacks, but they’re long forgotten by the time of this movie. All we’ve got is Thomas’ maybe-crush on turncoat Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and his bond with his pals. This movie wisely tries to build up a resistance movement (led by Walton Goggins) this time out, but it’s easier to get jazzed by the bad guys: the always wonderful Patricia Clarkson and your own fave, Aidan Gillen.
Edwin: As he is wont to do, Goggins steal each of his scenes, partly because he’s as much an extremist as Clarkson’s doctor and, back in “Littlefinger" Baelish territory, Gillen’s security leader. I’d be more interested in one of these late-series films shifting primary perspective to the villains with the rebels playing more of a supporting role, but that violates YA Dystopia 101, so juicy secondary turns are the best for which we can hope. Do you feel like The Death Cure offers much new in this genre or is it another sign that these type of films have run their course?
Bruce: It seems to pull together all the major elements of YA Dystopia — teen deaths, love triangles, evil dictatorships, resistance fighters, redeemed traitors, CG creatures, explosive finales, a quest for utopia — tying them up with a bow one last time. It’s a more respectable farewell than the ignoble expiration of the Divergent series, but it does seem to pile on the “one last twist” gambit over and over for nearly the last hour. It needed to be 30 minutes shorter. But I’m not sorry I saw it. The opening action sequence — the one that seriously injured O’Brien and shut down production for a year — is fun, and the finale’s not bad. Did you notice, as I did, the abundance of power tools and broken glass? I think they set a movie record for shard showers.
Edwin: The number of people throwing themselves or, more popularly, other people through windows is high enough to call it a motif. I also agree that the filmmakers don’t know when nor how to end the damn thing and was surprised that a certain fight involving a knife tip touching the precious blood of Christ — I mean, Thomas — didn’t bring another character back to life when it was plunged into the other's chest.
Bruce: I do give the movie credit for not resurrecting that character, and for an ending that’s actually morally ambiguous. It seems to view the end of the (adult) world as maybe a good thing.
Edwin: Despite its apocalyptic stakes, pretty much everything in The Death Cure feels inconsequential, but the whole production is busy enough that I wasn’t overly tempted to check my watch. I give it a high C-plus and will go with a solid B for Den of Thieves, which seems appropriate for a solidly built genre exercise.
Bruce: I liked The Death Cure more than I expected to, but that was because I so disliked the first two Maze Runner movies. It has a clear arc and the ensemble is appealing, including Giancarlo Esposito, a character actor who always elevates genre material. But it’s not going to win new converts. I’ll match your C-plus on that one. Den of Thieves is a notch better and worth a visit for heist-movie fans, at least patient ones. Still, it gets dings for being overlong and bungling its own “ah ha!” moment at the end, which is undersold and opens new plot holes, to the point that I wondered whether it was tacked on. So B-minus from me.
Den of Thieves
Grade: B. Rated R. Playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark.
Maze Runner: The Death Cure
Grade: C-plus. Rated PG-13. Playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark.
(Photos: STX Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox)