With all honesty, this writer has never been a fan of “The Hunger Games.” There, I said it. My film review track record in the series has been consistent. Dystopian worlds and brassy films about them are always fascinating, but kids-killing-kids-for-sport isn’t a cup of tea fitting of endorsement. It is easy to be intrigued but admittedly hard to be entertained by such a thing. With the profit-milking complete from “Part 1” last November, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 2” ties together its loose ends with reasonable quality. To this critic, the series has always come down to your tolerance of overwrought melodrama, your acceptance of illogical hang-ups, and your stomach for grim fictionalized massacre with a high body count being pushed on kids. It’s hard to be a fan of that bleakness.
The storyline of this film spins like an eye blink directly after the conclusion of “Part 1.” Panem is on the brink of its final stage of revolution. Through devious torture and mental experimentation, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) has been brainwashed by the Capitol to violently and conditionally hate Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), his former lover, creating difficult tension instead of reunion. Peeta was rescued with fellow captive former tributes Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin), Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson). Dueling love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) has ascended the military ranks on the frontlines and Katniss’s dear little sister Primrose (Willow Shields) has joined the corps of medics.
The uprising’s chief leaders, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and former Hunger Games designer Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his final screen credit), have strategically and exhaustively built this war around competing propaganda. They have centered their public campaign around Katniss as The Mockingjay, the symbolic hero of the thirteen united districts attempting to overthrow the decadently evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the Capitol. With the rebellion descending on the urban central city, Snow has one last grand defense planned.
The Peacekeeper troops have created a perimeter around Snow’s mansion. For the rest of the Capitol, Snow has enlisted the game designers to booby trap the streets and buildings with hundreds of deadly “pods” of varying degrees of mechanized terror. Snow’s goal is to force his rebellious citizens into one more indomitable labyrinth of survival. He wants to quell this war with fear and punishment for the sake of public spectacle and broadcast it for all to see.
Ignoring the hero treatment and the protective assignment of more propaganda films documenting staged combat from Coin and Heavensbee, Katniss heads to the front and has no one but Snow in her cross-hairs. With her hometown hunting partner Gale by her side, Katniss rallies the newlywed Finnick, a rehabilitating Peeta, Cressida’s (Natalie Dormer) film crew, and Bogg’s (Mahershala Ali) military unit to join her push to infiltrate the Capitol, dodge the pods, and mount an attack on Snow’s mansion.
All of the returning and familiar characters get their moments, albeit brief, to shine and show off away from battlefield. Donald Sutherland has been relishing (not slumming) playing a villain and his witch’s brew of evil is a pleasure to watch. Stanley Tucci’s Caeser Flickerman is still brown-nosing Snow’s agenda, broadcasting slanted TV coverage of the revolution. Jena Malone gets in her good scowls, but is sorely missed out in the real fight. The best of the connected ensemble remains to be Woody Harrelson lending his off-kilter sage mentoring appeal as Haymitch Abernathy and Elizabeth Banks getting most of her makeup and wardrobe budget restored as Ellie Trinket.
With a finale to wrap and a self-identified romantic choice to settle, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 2” is all about what the next move is for Katniss Everdeen. The movie travels with her decisions and dilemmas between sacrifice or heroism and Peeta or Gale. As with the entire franchise, Jennifer Lawrence does just enough as Katniss to warrant adding investment to her hero worship. Her Oscar-winning volatility is rightly calmed here to play the stoic symbol and she is a worthy matinee star. This series has added to Lawrence’s Q-rating without defining her as an actress. She will propel forward from “The Hunger Games” without having it be the first thing written on her tombstone.
For diehard fans, this was the film fans were hoping for out of Suzanne Collins’s third and concluding book in this saga. Director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”) shifted into a higher gear and found the accelerator. “Part 2” delivers the heavy drama and large-scale action that was promised. Composer James Newton Howard backs those increased stakes with a booming heroic musical score and the dystopian production design of urban ruins is elaborate and impressive. Lawrence’s pace with pushing that pedal is not perfect. The melodrama still outweighs the action. “Part 2” peaks early in its prolonged 137-minute running time and stretches its overly-calming, yet beautiful coda to a Peter Jackson-like length and impact. Still, after a tedious “Part 1” half of slowly-formulated politics, propaganda posturing, and endless scene setting, this finishing chapter is an improvement.
Lesson #1: Being a public symbol and savior— Citizens of Panem still kiss their three fingers and hold them high together in support of Katniss Everdeen. The height of her scrutiny, need, and place as the symbol of this movement has never been greater. The leaders above her want to preserve, shine, and package her as symbol with protection, promotion, and spin. Eschewing this position in early chapters, Katniss rises to the occasion to know that she has to now live up to her place as a savior.
Lesson #2: Choosing between two loves— The central love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale has fueled this franchise’s edge of melodrama. What started as a staged romance for TV viewers blossomed for Katniss and Peeta. He’s the guy she won’t let go of while Gale bides his time and his affection as the superior protector. Katniss has a uneviable choice ahead of her. This is Team Peeta and Team Gale for the YA crowd.
Lesson #3: The many sacrifices thrust upon leaders— Throughout this film on both sides of the civil war, we watch leaders make choices that involve many forms of sacrifice. Some actions weigh the cost of external resource or the human price of soldier or collateral damage for the chance at greater success for the respective cause on the line. Others choices involve the direct, altruistic, and noble acts of self-sacrifice in which the ultimate price is paid.