What started as a game culminates in deadly serious terms with a full-scale overthrow of the system itself in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2,” which counters the meager helpings offered by most teen-driven entertainment with one of the heartiest character arcs ever afforded a young female protagonist. After being forced to hunt other innocent children for sport, Katniss Everdeen rallies her fellow rebels to rise up against the Capitol, and that’s not even the most revolutionary thing about this fourth and final installment in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian adventure series, which continues to implicate its own fan base in the bloodlust even as it kills off many of their favorite characters. Though domestic B.O. dipped some 20% for the previous feature, this ultra-dark, deliberately paced climax should recover somewhat even as it ventures down bleaker channels still, paying off the gamble of having stayed true to its source.
Katniss may be 17 years old as “The Hunger Games” reaches its long-awaited finale, but in the hands of director Francis Lawrence (who took the reins from Gary Ross after the first film), the series has veered far from the realm of traditional young-adult entertainment. For all intents and purposes, “Mockingjay” is a war movie, albeit one starring an iconic, athletic Joan of Arc-like heroine (once again played by Jennifer Lawrence) and featuring battle scenes that feel suspiciously like extensions of previous Hunger Games — those arena death matches where sadistic dictator Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland, that master of the menacing grin) unleashed high-tech and bioengineered weapons, which have since been tucked away into booby-trapped “pods” all over the Capitol streets.
Though these inventive challenges make for an entertaining Capture the Flag-style obstacle course, Collins (who once again earns an “adaptation” credit) and returning screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong are clearly more concerned with the mass-media manipulation of combat footage than the are in what actually transpires in the trenches. Modern warfare, Collins suggests, is literally a “show of force,” complete with all the theatricality that implies, and her dystopian Oz will ultimately be ruled by the showman — or woman, since Snow’s worthiest rival is Alma Coin (a severe if somewhat less interesting Julianne Moore) — with the most compelling narrative to share over the airwaves.
Needless to say, it would be unwise for anyone not yet versed in the series’ mythology to jump in at this late stage, as “Mockingjay — Part 2” is no mere sequel, but the finale of an ambitious narrative in which the tragedy of each fatality relies on connections established in previous films. While hardly unique to “The Hunger Games,” this cumulative-storytelling approach feels perfectly consistent with sophisticated, serialized TV and film franchises (“Harry Potter” in particular) that respect viewers’ ability to track multiple individuals and intrigues over a span of years — which is to say, there’s no “Previously in Panem … ” catch-up sequence to situate newcomers here.
That said, director Lawrence does allow enough room for audiences to process what’s unfolding before them, working at a classical pace that’s become increasingly rare among breakneck modern blockbusters. One could argue that “Mockingjay” didn’t really merit being split in two (and surely a single three-hour movie could be made of it), but we benefit from the fact that the film has been given room to breathe, which allows for subtle character moments — including a nice bonding scene between Katniss and standoffish fellow victor Johanna (Jena Malone) that substitutes for their having been roommates in the book — and the gradual building of suspense during the actual siege in the Capitol.
For those who don’t clearly remember all that has come before, the film opens immediately after Katniss has been reunited with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who spent nearly the entirety of “Part 1” under Snow’s control, tortured and “highjacked” (brainwashed with tracker-jacker venom) into hating Katniss, only to end the film rescued and returned to District 13. But in what state? Or to echo Peeta’s distress in his own words, borrowing a line that may as well apply to the entire media-managed revolution: “Real or not real?”
Such questions hover over nearly everything in “Part 2,” where what remains of Katniss and Peeta’s always ambiguous romance becomes still more complex, now that the purity of his love has been cast in doubt. In the past, Peeta’s feelings for her were always sincere, whereas Katniss was the one who performed her part exclusively for the cameras’ benefit, guarding her heart for childhood sweetheart Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Now, Katniss fears that Peeta has been programmed to assassinate her, but also discovers that Gale isn’t the man she once believed, but rather a ruthless battle strategist willing to sacrifice innocent lives in his attacks on District 2 and the Capitol.
From the very outset of the series, Katniss has been faced with difficult moral questions. Nearly always, she acted out of a naive sense of what was right, starting with her decision to take younger sister Prim’s place in the Hunger Games. In the intervening time, she has gained an audience with Panem’s top power mongers, her cynicism steadily growing as she comes to recognize how such individuals operate. By this point, Coin is as much a figure of suspicion as Snow, and Katniss disobeys her orders (to function as rebel-alliance cheerleader in “propos,” or propaganda spots, directed against the Capitol) and decides to hunt Snow down herself — an easier choice to understand than the pic’s subversive final twist, which spectacularly re-establishes Katniss’ defiant individuality.
As demonstrated in an early scene, when a P.O.W. from District 2 holds her at gunpoint and demands one good reason he shouldn’t pull the trigger, Katniss considers her life no more valuable than those around her, refusing to buy into her own mythology. Though she has allies — and indeed reteams with a squad of familiar faces, including Gale, newly wed Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and former bodyguard Boggs (Mahershala Ali) for the Capitol assault — Katniss’ latest moral dilemmas leave her feeling more alone than ever. Like little Frodo Baggins, crushed and corrupted by his heavy burden over the course of three films, she’s not the same person she was when her adventure began.
Similarly, Jennifer Lawrence isn’t the same actress, having grown from the hardy yet resourceful child of “Winter’s Bone” to the assertive adult seen in “American Hustle.” That evolution serves her character well, and Lawrence (the director) engineers the film to replicate the effect of Collins’ first-person narration. We experience much of “Mockingjay” from a relatively subjective point of view, either seeing things over her shoulder or processing how the resulting emotions register on her face, which the actress controls with a subtlety befitting the widescreen pic’s Imax proportions.
That same subtlety doesn’t necessarily extend to James Newton Howard’s score, which fluctuates from soap-opera-style piano accents to full-blown action-movie bombast (with a lovely Celtic wedding ballad on the occasion of Finnick’s marriage). Even so, Howard’s music becomes downright vital during the film’s most claustrophobic sequence, as Katniss’ squad comes face-to-face with a herd of ferocious mutants in the Capitol’s underground sewer system, resulting in a “mutt” attack more intense than any of the demon or zombie nastiness the helmer conjured in “Constantine” or “I Am Legend.”
All three of his “Hunger Games” assignments benefit from the world-building talents the director developed on those earlier sci-fi thrillers, and here, he delivers the most complete evocation of Panem yet — although some may be disappointed to see the battle for District 2 reduced to a CGI firebombing glimpsed over Katniss’ shoulder. The film makes up for that with impressive Capitol action, building the city above and below ground through a combination of heavy-concrete German locations and digital trickery, best showcased in a terrific set piece in which Katniss and her crew work out personal differences amid a rising tide of black oil.
The nasty liquid swallows a few of her friends, while others die in even more horrifying ways later on, but there’s no fun left in killing, either for Katniss or her fans. In fact, some of the deaths are downright devastating, underscoring how much more profound Collins’ political critique has become by this stage. Just think: It was Katniss’ instinct to protect Prim (Willow Shields) that drew her into the center of Snow’s madness, and by the end, she’s in a position to take revenge upon the evil president, while her younger sister has joined the front lines.
The one death no one could have foreseen, that of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, adds welcome resonance to his scenes as gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee, while leaving him sorely missing from a crucial emotional moment in which Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch arrives with a letter containing the character’s final words. Though the script adheres to Collins’ novel, everything that follows feels extraneous, with a succession of endings straining the patience somewhat. While the series remarkably managed to sustain its cast and credibility across four increasingly ambitious features, Francis Lawrence doesn’t quite recognize when it’s game over.