Over the past three years, we've seen the glorious rise of Katniss Everdeen, the Girl On Fire who propelled "The Hunger Games" into a box-office phenomenon, made Jennifer Lawrence a household name and even inspired real political rebellion. The debut this week of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2" brings her story to a conclusion, but that's not necessarily good news.
I've read all of novels, and cheered the decision to break book three into two films, because I'd hoped that meant "The Hunger Games" filmmakers would create a more comprehensive story than Suzanne Collins managed in her flawed "Mockingjay." With each adaptation, I felt the franchise was getting better and better, so it's with a heavy heart that I admit "Mockingjay -- Part 2" is not all I'd hoped.
We pick up right where "Part 1" left off, with Katniss (Lawrence) wounded outside and in with a horrifically bruised throat and broken heart from Peeta's attack. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is bound, spitting and screaming about how Katniss isn't the girl worth dying for, but a deceitful "monster." Fired up for revenge against President Snow, Katniss slips out of District 13's bunkers to the frontlines of District 2 on a reckless assassination quest. Of course, being the most famous person in Panem, she's quickly spotted. Emerging as a politically savvy leader, Alma Coin sets Katniss up with a crew that's meant to keep her alive and on camera as she conquers the streets of the booby-trapped Capitol.
"Mockingjay -- Part 2" works best when its protagonist is in action-hero mode. The middle sequences on the streets and in the sewers of the Capitol are charged with danger, thick with tension, and boast visual effects that are as nightmarish as you could wish for in a PG-13 movie. Which is to say, there's no blood, but roaring waves of breath-sucking oil, beams of cruel incinerating light, and eyeless Mutts, slick and quick with razor-sharp fangs and a voracious hunger for rebel flesh. Those scenes alone are worth the ticket price, but in this final film, director Francis Lawrence lets his audience down by making the movie mostly one dour note.
I know, "Mockingjay -- Part 2" is a bleak story, beginning at the low point of the entire series. But in his 137-minute run time, Lawrence refuses to bring in the whimsical warmth that have made the first three films so powerful. It's never been the main ingredient to "The Hunger Games," but it's always played an important role. Remember in "Mockingjay -- Part 1" when Effie was revealed in District 13? The audience literally gasped with joy, because in the midst of so much darkness you need a little light, a little levity.
Sure, Effie (Elizabeth Banks) pops in for a primp session here or there in "Part 2," but the film fails to treat her reveal as an event. Heck, it doesn't even treat the wedding of Finnick and Annie as an event! Katniss basically walks right from a war room into the ceremony, allowing no anticipation and no glee for one of the film's few happy moments. Even Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) is robbed of his biting humor and megawatt smile. And without humor as an accent, the film's tone makes its beginning and end a bit of a maudlin slog.
"Mockingjay -- Part 2's" other major issue is Liam Hemsworth, the blandsome ingendude who's never lived up to his potential. As Gale, he's managed to be little more than eye candy in these films. But here his lack of charisma is actually laughable when he digs back into the love-triangle thread despite having never had an ounce of sexual chemistry with Lawrence. There's absolutely no question about who Katniss will pick as her partner, so Gale's repeated lamenting seems clueless and a waste of screen time that could have been better used injecting some life into this finale. I know, but in the book! Look, I'd prefer a grand cinematic experience to a dead-on loyal retelling. And just as they added more Effie to "Part 1," because fans adore her, the filmmakers should have scaled back on sad sack Gale in "Part 2."
Thankfully, Jennifer Lawrence is as mesmerizing as ever, finishing strong. Her on-screen interaction with Hutcherson is fraught with tension, pain and tenderness, playing spiritedly with the heartstrings of "Hunger Games" fans. Face etched with rage and confusion, Hutcherson deftly spins from frothing enemy to teary-eyed ally. And with each turn, our sympathies are with him.
Natalie Dormer smirks and shines once more; Sam Claflin gets a satisfying spin in a mad fight scene; Mahershala Ali makes the most of his small but moving role as rebel leader Boggs; and Julianne Moore elegantly transitions the stiff Coin of "Part 1" to the shady lady of "Part 2." However, the best supporting player here is Donald Sutherland, who clearly relishes his role as the sinister Snow. Bordering on camp, his portrayal of the blood-spitting tyrant is spiked with a wry wit. And his final smirking closeup gives the film one of its few laughs.
It boils down to this: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" feels like a part two, not a movie unto itself. While I can understand the filmmakers reasons for such a structure, as an audience member it felt like a mistake. Although I'd watched "Part 1" at home before I made my way to the theater for its second half, when I sat in my seat I expected a full story to unfold on that massive IMAX screen. Instead, this plays like an overextended third act, all low point, enemies closing in, and then only in its last few moments a sense of relief and resolution.
All in all, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" is a thoughtful series closer that seems overthought. So concerned about grounding the stakes and the drama, director Lawrence forgot the fun that made this YA franchise such a standout. So it's fine, not fantastic.
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" opens Friday nationwide.