New this week:
The Maze Runner—In the vein of The Hunger Games and Divergent, The Maze Runner is young-adult sci-fi with a body count. Based on James Dashner’s 2009 novel, it’s set in “The Glade,” a grassy, open area inhabited by adolescent boys. Their earlier lives, and how they came to The Glade are unknown to them—they’re all amnesiacs, remembering only their names.
Every now and then a freight elevator vomits up a new resident from far underground. The boys have done better at organizing themselves into a functional community than the lads in Lord of the Flies—they’ve set up an agricultural village with carefully assigned roles. The fastest, fittest and bravest of the boys serve as Maze Runners.
The Glade, you see, is enclosed by monolithic stone walls which open, during the day, to allow access to an enormous Maze. The Runners explore this by day, in hopes of mapping it and finding a way out, but are careful to get back to The Glade before the huge doors close. If they don’t, they’ll be trapped in the Maze with the Grievers, howling presences which stay out of sight during the day, but have the run of the place by night. No one, we are told, has survived a night in the Maze with the Grievers.
All this and shovel-loads more exposition is flung at the newest arrival, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien). He’s an intrepid, somewhat rebellious fellow, and he of course becomes the hot new Maze Runner, and comes face to face with the Grievers, and lives to tell the tale, and generally shakes things up in The Glade—with the result that its population is thinned. It does, however, gain a female resident, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who turns up in the elevator with a note declaring that she’s the last one ever.
The premise of The Maze Runner is undeniably intriguing; it stirs the imagination. And director Wes Ball stages many exciting scenes and gets vivid work out of his young cast, especially Blake Cooper, Ki Hong Lee, Aml Ameen, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Will Poulter. What marred the film, for me, was overexplanation—in the homestretch, we get a deluge of unconvincing backstory on how this situation came to be, and the mystery and inscrutability of the boys’ plight, and its allegorical associations with life in general, are sapped of their power. The hook of the movie was negotiating the Maze itself, not learning what the Maze was for.
A Walk Among the Tombstones—When Liam Neeson tells somebody, in that soft, deep, almost apologetic tone of his, that they’re in trouble if they harm some innocent victim, it’s hard not to take his threats seriously. Thus he’s making quite a career out of playing haunted father-figure rescuers and avengers, in melodramas like Taken and Taken 2, The Grey, Non-Stop and now A Walk Among the Tombstones.
Well, it’s certainly not a Tiptoe Through the Tulips. Based on one of the Lawrence Block novels about Matthew Scudder, an ex-NYPD recovering alcoholic and unlicensed private detective, the movie is a parade of horrors, starting us off with a gruesome shoot-out before the opening credits and getting much more unsavory from there. It’s set in 1999, against the backdrop of Y2K anxiety—how quaint does that seem now?—and involves a revolting kidnapping operation run by two of the most loathsome villains (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) to turn up in a thriller in years.
Scudder (Neeson) is hired to find these two by a swanky drug trafficker (Dan Stevens) whose wife ended up dead even though he paid the ransom. All manner of twists are unraveled, Scudder’s horrifying guilty past is revealed, and our hero also befriends a homeless teenager (Bryan “Astro” Bradley) who wants to be a detective, before the big showdown in the graveyard between good and evil—or, rather, between evil and comparatively good—arrives.
Nasty though it is, I found this Jacobean Big Apple bloodbath intense and satisfying. The script, adapted by director Scott Frank, has some creaky passages, and the strand with the teenage kid bumps up against sentimentality, though it’s well played and it allows Neeson some lighter moments. But Frank’s direction, with his measured pacing and his melancholic atmosphere reminiscent of a certain style of ‘70s urban crime thriller, is really expert.
As the movie progressed, however, I became increasingly aware that these villains were so odious that no comeuppance would be sufficient to calm my vengeful bloodlust toward them. And indeed, it wasn’t sufficient. But that’s my spiteful heart’s problem, not the movie’s.