From a marketing standpoint, the "Maze Runner" franchise is in a tough spot. The first installment, released last year, came late to the teen dystopia trend, well after "The Hunger Games" was underway and just months after the very similar "Divergent." It also featured a male hero, which suddenly seemed like a drawback at a time when women were on the rise in genres from action to comedy. What's a guy-centric, post-apocalyptic adventure series to do?
The first film found an answer: Play rough. "The Maze Runner," in which a boy named Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) wakes up in a maze so massive that its other teenage inhabitants have given up hopes of escaping, delivered some point-blank violence that felt a bit beyond its competitors. That lent some tension to the somewhat predictable story about a tyranny, an uprising, a special breed and so on.
The sequel, "Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials," plays even rougher. Now out of their maze, Thomas and his crew stagger through a landscape nicknamed the Scorch, where bombed-out cities drown in an endless Sahara of dust and sand. There is life out there, but it's mostly blood-spewing zombies. The boys (and Teresa, played by Kaya Scodelario) are being chased by the nefarious WCKD -- pronounced "wicked" and led by Patricia Clarkson as the pragmatic Dr. Ava Paige -- as they try to locate a rebel army called The Right Arm.
What makes "The Scorch Trials" enjoyable is the kinetic, hard-hitting direction of Wes Ball (returning from the first film). The big-scale sets may be outlandish -- military compounds, pristine laboratories, etc. -- but the action is always plausible and often inventive, as when a new friend, Brenda (Rosa Salazar), takes a tumble through a sideways-toppled skyscraper, or her father figure, Jorge (a very good Giancarlo Esposito), blows up a sprawling makeshift palace.
The story also throws some hard choices at Thomas, Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and the other likable youngsters, while the fine grown-up cast -- including Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper and Lili Taylor -- plays characters of varying degrees of trustworthiness. This series may never overtake "The Hunger Games," but it's carving out some satisfyingly rugged territory of its own.