Despite it being mentioned right there in the title, there’s very little left in Liongates’ box office smashing dystopian sci-fi series that is a game. The Hunger Games may have started its cinematic adaptation life as a poppy brightly coloured YA spectacle masquerading as thinly veiled social commentary courtesy of Gary Ross’ briskly entertaining first film, but ever since Francis Lawrence took over as franchise helmer with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire the series has been rapidly growing up into a grimy and gritty sci-fi drama. And there have admittedly been some growing pains.
Catching Fire still remains as the franchise high-point with its sublime balance act of widescreen effects-driven popcorn entertainment – complete with the franchise’s ludicrous peacock pageantry – and its then newly found sobriety, but it could be argued that its follow-up, last year’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, took the latter a tad too far, sometimes threatening with straight demoralizing dreariness. And that’s not even addressing the larger transgression of it so obviously being only half a movie. The conclusion of that stunted story is now here though, and luckily, the quality pendulum has taken another marked upswing.
Mockingjay – Part 2 has no time for backwards glances as it picks up right where its predecessor left off: Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been rescued from the dastardly clutches of the sneering dictator Presiden Snow (Donald Sutherland), but at a cost as he has been brainwashed to distrust and possibly kill his erstwhile co-champion and (pretend?) love Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence).
Meanwhile the bloody civil war between the downtrodden Districts and the elitist Capitol has reached the end straight with only the assault on the gilded Capitol itself still to come. Rebellion leader and District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and her adviser, ex-Gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his final role) debate on war strategy, in particular whether Katniss would serve the rebellion better as a military leader or televised martyr.
But the “Girl on Fire” has plans of her own: While officially she and a special unit of fighters including sometime-beau Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and a violently unstable and untrustworthy Peeta are sent behind the heated military action to film propaganda videos as they eliminate “pods” – inventively vicious traps placed all around the Capitol to hamper the rebels and turn the city itself into a Hunger Games arena – Katniss schemes to slip away and personally put an arrow through the non-existent heart of President Snow for what he’s done to her family and friends. Of course the best laid plans often go awry, and when it comes to strife-torn Panem, those mishaps involve mutated creatures, friends becoming enemies and a whole lot of people dying in fiendishly creative means.
Whereas its predecessor had a lack of pure, enervating action beats, Mockingjay – Part 2 makes up for that with a series of big swooping explosive moments. The action may have been transported from the inventive landscapes of the arenas to the much more solemn brick and mortar of the Capitol – the usually flashy colourful opulence having been muted by the war – but the threats are still just as deadly and thrilling. A particular nail biting affair in the dank and dark sewers under the Capitol, involving a pack of ravenous “mutts” – slathering and skittering creatures brought to frightening life through a superb mix of CG and practical special effects – stands tops in the action department as a real stomach-clencher, but even in more traditional shootouts Mockingjay – Part 2 doesn’t disappoint.
Jennifer Lawrence also continues to be this franchise’s ace in the hole, helping you to overcome its hinky politicking by turning in the same level of nuanced and emotionally charged performance she would deliver in a serious Oscar-bait drama. But with the exception of Julianne Moore’s manipulative Alma Coin – a character that has received the most work in the last two films, and which Moore brings to life admirably – Lawrence does most of the heavy lifting as most of the other acting heavyweights in the cast are simply not given that much to do this time around. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth have the meatier contributions out of the supporting cast and give valiant efforts, but are simply outclassed by the talented Lawrence.
This actually leads to the film’s biggest problem, which is that as the franchise has matured into this emotional action-drama with a complex female lead and a potent canvas for engaging dialogue about everything from fascism to media consumerism and pop culture fixation, ultimately it instead devolves to have its character climax be nothing more than “Team Peeta or Team Gale”. While Lawrence’s prodigious acting does help to cover some of the film’s other cracks, the fact that the chemistry between the three members of this love triangle has never been truly believable does undercut any impact it may have had.
Luckily the film does deliver the goods when it comes both its actual climax for its rebellion narrative, and especially for Katniss’ journey from protective big sister to desperate champion to reluctant rebel icon and eventually… well, that would be spoiling. Not that director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig bring much in the form of subterfuge to the plot’s endgame. This is especially true if you’re familiar with Suzanne Collins’ original novel, as the adaptation merely ditches most of literary Katniss’ more kvetch-y and annoying “lovesick teenager” routine – for which I am eternally grateful – but stays relentlessly true to the source in just about everything else.
This also involves a series of “endings” after the “ending”, as they tie up all of the franchise’s errant threads. It may all be just a smidgen too neat, and the seemingly endless epilogues may outstay their welcome for some, but the actual conclusion – when it eventually arrives – is an immensely emotionally satisfying capstone on this tale. For a film franchise that has really been racing at breakneck speed to maintain its grip on the genre crown – four big budget productions of these proportions in four years is nothing to sniff at – its more sombre and measured wrap-up is a strong sign of its earned maturity. Is it all perfect? No, not at all. But neither is its zeitgeist owning heroine, and she still turned out pretty good. And the same can be said for her final cinematic hurrah.
Last Updated: November 19, 2015