The last installment in the screen version of Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy pretty much writes its own epitaph, summing up the quality of the series as a whole in the very last words spoken by heroine Katniss Everdeen to a newly-born infant representing the return of peace and freedom to Panem: “It gets a little tedious after all those years,” she says, “but there are worse games to play.” She’s right: “Mockingjay—Part 2,” while more energetic than its rather dull immediate predecessor, doesn’t measure up to the initial two pictures in the quartet. And while devoted fans will appreciate having Collins’ books adapted so faithfully, newcomers should be warned that the final episode makes to concessions whatever to viewers unacquainted with the previous ones. It just picks up where “Part 1” left off, offering no recapitulation of any consequence about earlier events. The gate through which one passes to Panem might well read “Fend for yourself.”
That said, after a slow start “Mockingjay 2” kicks into high gear and, though Francis Lawrence’s direction is never of more than journeyman quality, works reasonably well as a pure adrenaline-soaked action movie about rebels assaulting the fortress of a corrupt government, even tossing in a curve at the end to add a dose of cynicism about politics in general to the mix. The narrative opens with Katniss having an unhappy reunion with her former games companion—and obvious soul-mate—Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who’s been brainwashed by the Machiavellian minions of evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) into hating her. She recovers from the experience determined to join the assault that rebel leader Coin (Julianne Moore) and manipulative gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, again resuscitated through cinema magic) have planned on Snow’s tightly-defended Capitol, their purpose to end his rule once and for all.
But Katniss finds herself assigned to a squad—including her childhood sweetheart Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her old comrade-in-arms Finnick (Sam Claflin)—that’s intended to serve more a PR than a military function. Of course Katniss will have none of that, and after her crew is diminished in a oily trap set by Snow that’s the first of the film’s big set-pieces, she takes over the reins of the operation and pushes the survivors toward their final goal. A second major fracas, this time with a horde of mutant creatures in a subterranean tunnel, reduces her troops even more, but still she pushes on, until she comes face-to-face with the villainous Snow, though not until after she’s lost some of those closest to her. She’ll then have to make a decision about the nature of Panem’s future leadership (as well as a choice between Peeta and Gale) that in a way takes the story full circle, as she reemerges not only as the champion of freedom over tyranny—but as an archer nonpareil and a girl of simple, homespun tastes. The conclusion will be satisfying for those who have been following the series devoutly, though quite honestly one that comes as a bit of a letdown after all the hullabaloo that’s led up to it.
But if the narrative of “Mockingjay 2” isn’t particularly imaginative—at least until that final twist, which gives Hoffman the chance to depart the screen with a cheeky smile (Sutherland’s Snow goes out with a malevolent sneer, too)—it does at least end things in a way that should satisfy fans of the series. And of course it’s been lavishly made. Philip Messina’s production design mixes impressive structures—especially in the Capitol (where German locations are further enhanced with GCI additions and the interiors are suitably plush) with more ascetic underground locales for the rebels; and Jo Willems’ cinematography, while frankly unspectacular, is clean and direct. Some of the effects, unfortunately, are less than first-rate: the ocean of oil sent against the heroes in the first set-piece has a distinctly unreal look, and those mutants in the second are a mite blurry. James Newton Howard’s score doesn’t represent his best work, either.
On the other hand, the cast is exemplary, even if the roles aren’t particularly challenging. Among the older performers Hoffman exudes smug confidence as Heavensbee, and Moore icy determination as Coin; and while Sutherland quietly chews the scenery as Snow, with his masterly shark-like grin, Woody Harrelson evinces gruffly avuncular concern as Katniss’ advisor Haymitch, delivering at the close in a moment that, had he still been alive, would probably have gone to Hoffman. On the other hand Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks and Jeffrey Wright are relegated to little more than cameos.
The picture nevertheless belongs to Lawrence, whose career has rightly skyrocketed since she took on Katniss and here brings a measure of gravity to the heroine that’s entirely in keeping with the darkness of Collins’ concluding chapter. Neither Hutcherson nor Hemsworth, unhappily, match her; both come across as callow in her shadow. But that’s the nature of superstardom. Claflin manages greater energy as Finnick, but it’s vibrancy of a comic-book kind, while the rest of the cast do their jobs adequately but without a great deal of distinction.
“The Hunger Games” has progressed a mite oddly, with a solid first installment, a better second one, and then a conclusion that, especially when hampered by the decision to split it in two, has proven something of a disappointment. “Mockingjay 2” is preferable to its immediate predecessor, but apart from Lawrence and a few grace notes provided by the older supporting players, it ends the series on a rather tepid note.