When Quentin Tarantino decided to split his revenge epic Kill Bill into two parts, it made sense. Both films varied wildly in tone, style, and scope; each film could easily be enjoyed without the other if necessary. But in nearly every other case of a movie with multiple parts, it too often feels like a cheap grab for more money even while it’s presented as a story simply too epic to contain in one film, which is rarely true. For example, there’s no reason that The Hobbit, a story shorter than any of the books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, needs to have nine hours of film devoted to it. Ditto for any film in the Twilight franchise.
There’s certainly some of that going on in Mockingjay: Part 2, the fourth film in the Hunger Games trilogy (because “trilogy” means “four”, of course). While there still seems to be no truly valid reason why this film and Mockingjay: Part 1 couldn’t have been edited down into a tighter, sleeker, and more solid single three-hour film, at least everybody involved has the good sense to make the extra time worth watching.
If you don’t know what happened in Part 1, you’re sort of out of luck. There isn’t even a title card shown before we’re thrown right back into where that film left off. To sum up, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is getting ready to lead a rebellion against the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), but also has to deal with her fellow Hunger Games survivor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who is recovering from a severe brainwashing during his time as a prisoner of Snow’s in The Capitol. It only gets worse from there, because as soon as Katniss and the rebellion land at the Capitol’s steps, they discover that the whole city has been rigged with traps waiting to kill her and her allies in many nasty, creative ways.
It takes a while to get to that point, however. The first half-hour of the film seems like a holdover from the less action-packed and almost anti-climactic Part 1. Once Katniss gets her boots on the ground, however, the film finally gets a heartbeat and pulses strong and sure from that point on. Even in-between set pieces, the film feels more vibrant and alive than it does in the more talking, less walking first act. It sweeps up the viewer so easily that it’s easy to overlook some of the more glaring gaps in logic, such as how the Capitol could so quickly turn itself into a minefield of traps as elaborate as a tidal wave of molten tar that covers an entire city block.
Director Francis Lawrence by this point has a strong grasp on what makes the franchise work, having done both Part 1 and the previous film Catching Fire. It isn’t the arena battles or the political machinations between Snow and the rebellion’s President Coin (a clipped and restrained Julianne Moore), although that’s all interesting enough. The real focus of the franchise is the people caught in the middle of all of it; Katniss, Peeta, and everybody else whose loyalties and perceptions are constantly being challenged by war, violence, loss, and the propaganda surrounding it.
There could perhaps be no more able actor than Jennifer Lawrence to anchor these themes into a very tangible setting. At this point, Lawrence effectively IS Katniss Everdeen. She has a magnetism and appeal that is completely real and genuine. During a highly emotional moment toward the end of the film, Lawrence breaks down so completely that it becomes nearly uncomfortable to watch. She is never affected and never seems like she’s Acting with a capital A.
It’s a shame that the rest of the cast doesn’t always rise to her level. Josh Hutcherson does a great job with Peeta, but he’s also given the most meat of anyone in the script besides Lawrence. He’s not quite as natural as she is, but he’s often just as raw and immediate. Sutherland has an eerie charisma as Snow, and the rapport between him and Lawrence is palpable, which makes it such a shame that they have so few scenes together. Liam Hemsworth, however, as Katniss’ quasi-love interest Gale, is so bland here that it makes the whole #TeamPeeta/#TeamGale thing seem like a very one-sided argument. Julianne Moore seems overly subdued, even more so than she was in Part 1, although given the nature of Coin’s character, this may have been an active choice on Moore’s part. Regardless, she doesn’t seem like she’s giving this role her full attention.
The cast of characters is so big that few people get a chance to do more than say a few lines then leave with as little emotional investment as possible, and those that do don’t make a huge impression. Far too much time is spent on less interesting characters like the interchangeable soldiers in Katniss' support squad while the ones that add the most flavor — primarily Elizabeth Banks’ endearingly wispy Effie Trinket or Jena Malone’s endearingly axe-crazy Johanna — are relegated to cameos. Even Sam Claflin, who played Hunger Games victor Finnick in the previous films with criminal amounts of bad-boy charisma, gets little to do except fight a pack of mutant beasts in the sewers under The Capitol.
We can quibble about which cast members deserve the most time, but the focus of the franchise has always been Katniss. Lawrence has been fascinating to watch through the previous films, seeming to have a greater grasp on what makes her tick with each successive film. She’s a flawed heroine, but one as relatable and three-dimensional as any that have graced cinema in years. It’s telling that the true climax of the film is not the climactic action set-piece, but the emotional fallout that follows. That’s why the films have been so successful, and that’s why just this once, we’ll agree to forgive the fact that we had to buy four movie tickets to see three films.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B