'Mockingjay: Part 2": A Smoky, Grim Revolt Lacking In Fire

Directed by: Francis Lawrence; Runtime: 137 minutes
Grade: B-

The writing was on the wall as soon as the announcement was made: that the third book in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series, "Mockingjay", would be split into two films. The idea is intrinsically flawed, driving a partition somewhere in the middle -- around the rising action -- of a story that's built with a beginning and an end, leaving one standalone film to concentrate on the build-up and the other as the payoff. It was a disheartening creative decision, especially after director Francis Lawrence surprised audiences with Catching Fire, often considered to have improved upon the successes of the first Hunger Games. Yet, the possibility arose that, perhaps, the added length and the cinematic format might better realize the material that received a polarized response from the series' fans, giving the first half more substance and purpose while more clearly visualizing the vigorous war-torn second half. Alas, the division was clearly apparent in the dreary and unsatisfying Mockingjay Part 1, leaving Part 2 to follow through roughly as expected: two-plus hours of danger, death, and despair that'd have more impact had it seamlessly flowed from the first.

Naturally, Mockingjay: Part 2 picks up immediately after the abrupt ending of the previous film (which should be viewed before continuing with this review), where resistance leader Coin (Julianne Moore) announced plans to move forward on the Capitol and where the group of Hunger Games victors who were captured by President Snow's forces -- including Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) -- have been rescued and brought to the fabled District 13. There's little else to do at this point than for the face of the resistance, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), to lead her push onto the Capitol, though the conflicted attitudes within the resistance leave her in a state of flux as to whether she's supposed to kill Snow (Donald Sutherland) or not. Katniss, ever decisive and rebellious, makes her own choices about what to do once the troops arrive in the landscape of the Capitol, which has been rigged into a grand spectacle of violent traps for the resistance fighters to progress through, quite similarly to that of another spectacle in the Hunger Games.

By virtue of being the response to the events in Mockingjay Part 1 and the grand finale in a series about political and paramilitary rebellion, it's unsurprising that Mockingjay Part 2 revolves almost entirely around the brutal action of the storm upon the Capitol. Despite complex character moments beforehand that heighten the emotional gravity of the events to come, there's no stopping the momentum forcing the film forward, as if very little has a purpose beyond spurring Katniss toward her duty. While that's part and parcel with the division of stories, the script from Peter Craig and Daniel Strong also relies on an exorbitant amount of dull exposition to elaborate on what's going on, failing to elevate the inherently grim tone of warfare leading the resistance forward. Beyond the scenes with Peeta, driven by an unleashed and wild-eyed performance from Josh Hutcherson whose character now suffers from his own post-trauma distortion, there's a stony and generally obligatory attitude about the second part here. The intentionally silent presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't help.

Across the Hunger Games series, Katniss Everdeen transforms dramatically, erupting from a emotional sister who stands in for her sibling in the face of certain death into a warrior with PTSD and, eventually, to the televised face of rebellion against dictatorship. Mockingjay Part 2 marks the end product of her trials, and it isn't pretty: born of necessity, she's become severe and driven by vengeance, sustaining her composure for the good of those around her. It's a logical metamorphosis, of course, but it also takes away from the enlivened strength that Lawrence's acting ability brought to the table, relying more on suppressed -- often nondescript -- expressions of anguish. There's strength in that, depicting a resolute woman who steels herself for the betterment of her comrades: for her sister, a burgeoning medic; for Peeta, whose brainwashing has given him murderous tendencies; and for Gale, who turned pragmatically ruthless for the sake of the resistance after the destruction of his home. Outside of a few fiery scenes where Katniss is (finally) allowed to let her guard down, this is a stark -- numbed, even -- portrayal that's tough to relish.

The vast majority of Mockingjay Part 2 revolves around this despondent Katniss leading the physical uprising throughout the Capitol, which President Snow has shaped into a grand spectacle by setting vicious booby-traps throughout the city to thwart their efforts. In essence, that becomes the final version of the "games" within the series, and it doesn't shy away from bountiful violence and death within the space of a PG-13 film. Collins' third book struggled in this area: while her writing style capably fleshed out the creativity of gamemaker arenas, her depiction of the modified city streets resulted in fast-moving but obscured warfare that didn't have a firm grasp on the landscape. The cinematic medium obviously has an advantage there, and it's one of final chapter's true strengths, perpetuating the gray, crumbling atmosphere of upheaval with the dangers of liquid, fire, and bloodthirsty monsters unleashed on Katniss and her infiltrators. Fierce action ensues, and while the skirmishes and battlefield are still jumbled and not without a few holes, director Lawrence nails the harrowing blockbuster intensity.

That's also part of the problem with Mockingjay Part 2 as a whole, though: it essentially feels like the Reaping portion of the prior films has been cut off and extended into its own installment, only with Katniss descending into the warzone of districts instead of being elevated upwards through a cylindrical tube. The series' signature gloomy tones built around sacrifice, politics, and manipulation of citizens with media and propaganda weave together with the intense action, further amplified by commentary on the price of war and the demands of political power upon rulers. Director Lawrence and his writers bring all this together into a functional and twist-heavy commentary, yet viewing the tribulations of the resistance fighters and the lengths in which powerful figures will go to assert their grasp over the masses -- blatantly disregarding the value of life -- doesn't make for the same kind of rewarding or particularly enthralling experience found in Katniss' first bout in the arena or the Quarter Quell. The stakes are higher, but the the overcast demeanor continuously suppresses the excitement level.

While the final installment in the Hunger Games series certainly understands its need for closure, heightened by splendid production value behind the action and convincing, emotional performances from all involved, there's no getting around that Mockingjay Part 2 -- much in the same way as Part 1 -- runs at least a half-hour longer than it should. A tighter and more poignant depiction of the uprising against the Capitol likely exists somewhere between these overlong productions, a brisk and intense sendoff instead of an elongated elegy. What's here instead musters a generally appropriate ending that fits somewhere in the space between sorrow and bittersweet, slightly more upbeat and optimistic in tone than the book but every bit as daunting in terms of how Katniss concludes her term as the Girl on Fire. Unfortunately, that comes at the end of a four-hour storming of the castle that can't shake the feeling that it deliberately padded its runtime for the sake of a two-part theatrical showing, a disappointment considering how director Lawrence skillfully took the torch and ran with Catching Fire.

For a full review of the Hunger Games series on Blu-ray, head over to DVDTalk: [Click Here]


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