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“It gets a little tedious after all these years,” admits Katniss Everdeen about her life’s obligations in her final line of dialogue after 547 accumulated minutes of The Hunger Games films. It’s hard not to agree with her, nor to imagine that there are too many people — Jennifer Lawrence included — who will be sorry to see this overdrawn series end. Not too many, that is, except for the folks at Lionsgate, who have tallied $2.315 billion in worldwide box-office grosses from their three previous adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ blockbuster book trilogy and can count on raking in another $800 million, give or take, from this pervasively grim final edition to the series. But this cash cow is done.
What started off onscreen as a lush, outdoorsy, futuristic gladiatorial adventure has, to close things out, become a dark, often stifling tale of rebel insurrection that takes place largely underground or in dangerous urban ruins. Nominally fueled by accelerating anticipation of the long-awaited showdown between Katniss and nefarious President Snow (Donald Sutherland), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 accentuates the weariness of the original insurgents and wariness between the archer warrior and rebel leader Coin (Julianne Moore), who is far ahead of her cohorts in imagining a post-Snow Panem nation.
In fact, Collins’ most surprising and satisfying achievement in the series’ third installment was her handling of Coin, whose profile as a people’s champion against an oppressive, tyrannical regime is increasingly contaminated by totalitarian impulses of her own and crafty ploys aimed at reducing Katniss to a mere figurehead for the revolutionary movement. This element is similarly the most engaging aspect of the latest film and, while it doesn’t really occupy much screen time, it provides a dramatically arresting action climax.
Still, this is a dish that has been simmering over low heat for a long time, which makes for some pretty slow-going early on. Contributing most to the early sense of stasis is Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta, who, since his liberation after being brainwashed by Capitol forces, must be strapped down while he babbles threatening diatribes against Katniss. She believes he can be brought around, but even as he improves he continues to be a loose cannon.
The members of Coin’s inner circle seem well down the path to becoming mere yes-men, and here it must be noted that Mock 2 marks the final film appearance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died last year before completing his role as Plutarch Heavensbee, a former Snow ally now serving as Coin’s right hand. He has very little to do here (also the case for Jeffrey Wright as another adviser) and it’s hard to tell if digital sleight-of-hand is at work in any of his scenes or whether his lines were spoken by him or finessed by other means. Whatever the case, this great actor goes out with a whimper rather than a bang.
Even if Coin would prefer that Katniss stay behind to serve as a symbol rather than join the front lines of battle, the young warrior is utterly determined to kill Snow herself and shortly sets out with a little band of commandos that not only includes Peeta but Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who still doesn’t know quite where he stands with her, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, now with mere scraps of dialogue), little sister Prim (Willow Shields), Finnick (Sam Claflin), damaged Johanna (Jena Malone), camera-toting Cressida (Natalie Dormer), squad leader Boggs (Mahershala Ali) and others.
Once the squad emerges from a long initial spell underground, a videogame vibe takes over as the group pushes through the largely vacated Capitol toward Snow’s palace. The rebels’ scope reveals the whereabouts of countless “pods” that have been hidden throughout the city and will explode or set off other nasty reactions when approached. But many new pods continue to be added in unknown locations that quite efficiently reduce the commandos’ numbers.
But Katniss will not be deterred, not after all she’s been through, and at least the climax has been handled adeptly so that fans will be pleased and those who have never read the book might actually be taken by surprise. The Katniss we behold in the epilogue, set a few years later, is unquestionably an older, wiser person — and gratefully retired from public life.
Looking back, and beyond the financial tsunami it created, The Hunger Games stands as a franchise that benefited equally from smarts, good fortune and arriving at a favorable moment in the zeitgeist, one that featured a young action heroine who could be embraced as a (reluctant) feminist fantasy figure. Anyone could have seen the vast cinematic potential in the story of a rural teenage girl plucked from her poor, simple life, thrust into repeated life-and-death survival competitions only to emerge as a star and, finally, becoming not only a symbol but an instrument of political revolution against a totalitarian regime. A bit of a bump ensued when the first entry’s director and co-writer, Gary Ross, evidently couldn’t or wouldn’t commit to turning out scripts fast enough to ensure the annual release rate Lionsgate desired, but a consistent, reliable, if uninspired replacement was found in Francis Lawrence.
Although evidently not in the overbearing manner of EL James on the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, novelist Collins maintained involvement and input (she received an unusual “adaptation” screenwriting credit on the final two installments) and good writers were hired to do solid carpentry, which they did. Aesthetic consistency was maintained by production designer Philip Messina and composer James Newton Howard working on all four films; after cinematographer Tom Stern left along with Ross, Jo Willems shot all of Lawrence’s installments.
Even if the illustrious supporting players were just punching the clock much of the time, almost all of them — Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Moore, Wright and, yes, even Hoffman when his character’s allegiances shifted — had their bust-out moments somewhere along the line. And then there’s Sutherland, who, after exuding pestilential inhumanity and condescension for three and a half films, saves the best for last; even in the face of his unquestioned demise, he can only regard the upstart Katniss with a look of amused disdain, followed by profound ironic laughter that echoes Walter Huston’s at the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; in fact, the moment is cut too short.
But all of the above factors mean little or nothing compared to the importance of Jennifer Lawrence having emerged as a star in this series. Just 21 when the first entry was released, and an Academy Award winner by the time the second came out, Lawrence is one of those rare performers who has it all: talent, looks, spirit, emotional accessibility and a spontaneous quality that helps every scene she’s in come alive. Those who recognized this and saw that she could elevate The Hunger Games from mass market teen pulp to event status earned whatever they got — which is a lot. Now that this series is over, Lawrence is theoretically free to do twice as many non-franchise films as she has over the past four years, which means she’ll be able to work with directors other than Lawrence and David O. Russell. The line forms on the left.
Production company: Lionsgate, Color Force
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Mahershala Ali, Natalie Dormer, Wes Chatham, Michelle Forbes, Elden Henson, Paula Malcomson, Evan Ross
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Danny Strong, adaptation by Suzanne Collins, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik
Executive producers: Suzanne Collins, Jan Foster
Director of photography: Jo Willems
Production designer: Philip Messina
Costume designers: Kurt and Bart
Editors: Alan Edward Bell, Mark Yoshikawa
Music: James Newton Howard
Casting: Debra Zane
Rated PG-13, 136 minutes
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