"Go!" That word shouted out in triplicate or quintuplicate is the refrain and credo of director Wes Ball's "Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials," the breathless second chapter of the rare young adult fantasy series that can stand up to "The Hunger Games."
The first "Maze Runner" film was a wilderness saga refitted with robotic monsters. "The Scorch Trials" is a "Mad Max" film on foot.
In last year's "Maze Runner," our hero, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), arrived with his memory wiped clean in a colony of amnesiac adolescents at a wilderness outpost called the Glade. Thomas immediately sensed something off about the Glade's location next to a giant concrete maze.
That sense is the closest Thomas comes to a superhero talent in this tough, unpretentious series, and he exercises it again in "The Scorch Trials." It starts right after the first film ends, when Thomas led a few Gladers out of the maze and into a lab, where they learned via video from the enigmatic Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) that the World Catastrophe Killzone Department (WCKD, pronounced "Wicked") had been testing them to find an antidote for a global cataclysm called "The Flare."
The survivors are now hustled out of helicopters and into a subterranean bunker already filled with veterans of other mazes. There an ingratiating commander, Janson (Aidan Gillen), promises they will ship out in small groups to a new home where they'll be safe from WCKD's clutches. But Aris (Jacob Lofland), who escaped from another maze, soon convinces Thomas that these kids aren't going anywhere, except into high-tech body bags. What ensues is a prison break followed by a nonstop chase, first through a devastated city and then through a desert so vast that the mountain home of a rebel army seems farther away the closer they get.
Ball and T.S. Nowlin, who adapted James Dashner's book, never overexplain anything, including the teenagers' status as "immunes," the appearance of zombie-like creatures called Cranks or the extent of WCKD's influence ("WCKD is good" is the series' most piquant catchphrase). Thomas and company must crack these mysteries on the run, while gauging the value or virtue of some rococo supporting characters, notably the scavenging entrepreneur Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and his resourceful ward Brenda (Rosa Salazar), who use chained Cranks as guard dogs.
Thomas keeps his priorities straight by staying true to his band of younger brothers, and O'Brien grows into the role of leader without succumbing to bogus gravitas. He's buoyant and urgent enough to hold his own in a cast full of scene-stealers, especially Thomas Brodie-Sangster's hyper-alert Newt, and Salazar's sly, sexy Brenda, who might be a better match for Thomas than his sometime soul mate, the distant and troubled Teresa (Kaya Scodelario).
The Gladers' esprit de corps extends to the director. Ball's go-for-broke enthusiasm enlivens conventional action-movie setups. What would escape sequences do without a convenient network of air ducts? Still, whenever a scene requires a precisely timed window smash or door slam, Ball and his cast overcome clichés with gusto.
Ball's movie quotes are smart and evocative, including desert horizons out of "Lawrence of Arabia" and suspended bodies out of "Coma." He's keen on visual details: the ghostly swoosh of a white lab coat when air rushes in from a corridor, the grotesque profiles of bodies tumbling down sandbanks.
"The Scorch Trials" cannily exploits pop mythologies of the moment. If you're up for an end-of-the-world adventure done with brio, take the film's own advice and "Go!"
'Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials'
Rated: PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, substance use, language
Running time: 2 hour, 11 minutes