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My dear Miss Everdeen, make no mistake. The game is coming to its end.

Movie

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
(2015)

 

Well, it’s better than Part 1. Although not the last YA franchise to dubiously split its finale in two, there’s no obvious inheritor to The Hunger Games’ crown of rampant billion dollar grossing hit. As such, we may see fewer such desperate cash grabs in future (I don’t think anyone’s holding their breath for The Divergent Series: Allegiant and The Divergent Series: Ascendant). Arguably, the bean counter led strategy – whatever lofty notions director Francis Lawrence professes regarding the decision’s legitimacy – has led to an uneven, laborious second half of a movie series that set off at a fair old clip. So, while The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part Deux focuses in on its theme of the moral vacuum that accompanies authoritarian structures reasonably successfully, it finishes up very much lesser to the shamelessly crowd-pleasing first two outings.

Which come down to Russell Crowe’s Gladiator shtick: “Are you not entertained?” Daft as the premise of The Hunger Games is (admittedly, it passes for wholly credible when jostling for space with The Maze Runner or Divergent), it’s essential conceit of gladiatorial combat between bright (and not so bright) young things is an instantly winning formula. It’s no coincidence that, for all its earnest ruminations regarding nominal system change, propaganda and power corrupting absolutely, Mockingjay – Part 2 is at its most spirited when rehearsing yet another (unofficial) games; as Finn (Sam Claflin) even obligingly suggests “Welcome to the 76th Hunger Games”.

Which rather highlights that, for all its ability to communicate worthy themes to a wide audience, The Hunger Games’ aspirations get bogged down in self-importance whenever it opts to acknowledge this head-on. That’s when the commentary feels at its most YA; when calls upon Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) to deliver an impromptu speech (most notably to a would-be assassin), or a character sets out why Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) feels threatened by Katniss’ influence, just like President Snow (Donald Sutherland), rather than letting the audience realise this themselves.

When it does show, the effects are invariably potent, such as Coin bombing the shield of children assembled outside Snow’s palace in a topical false flag operation (well, topical if you entertain conspiracy theories) or Katniss taking out the incumbent president during Snow’s public execution. As with most big movies with a political bent it tends to deliver when it doesn’t let on that it only has so much to say, actually (see also Captain America: The Winter Soldier).

But part of this is also comes back to allowing itself far too much time wallowing in a mire of introspection of its own making. We already got the message about Katniss as a poster child for the new order, and her mixed feelings about it, in Part Un, so pressing the point during the first half of the picture feels like overkill. This repetition ensures Mockingjay – Part 2 drags for long stretches, to the extent that it frequently feels like an unhurried prestige mini-series adaption, dotting every i and crossing every t of a sacred text.

Such reverence also leads to a number of structurally unwieldy choices (the assault on the palace looks headed for a grand climax, but then Katniss passes out all-aflame and we’re forced to regroup; it sucks all the energy out of the frame). Jennifer Lawrence good as she is, is unable to carry that weight of such pacing problems solo, and there isn’t enough substance in other roles to take up the slack.

While the “adults” in the cast are generally fine actors, few of them have enough going on to make them truly intriguing. Moore’s Coin proves disappointingly undifferentiated when she goes as far as suggesting a Hunger Games for the Capitol kids (paint her as a baddie, sure, but not quite so clumsily/overtly) and there are too many good actors (Gwendoline Christie, Stanley Tucci, Robert Knepper) reduced to a single scene.

Others stir and repeat (Philip Seymour Hoffman, sadly in his final performance, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks – although a little Effie goes a long way) with little of note to show for it. At least Michelle Forbes has a decent role in the mid-section of the picture as a very Michelle Forbes not-to-be-messed-with lieutenant, while Sutherland (who like Mr Bronson in Grange Hill, has to pay) relishes the chance to bring silky menace during the closing sections. In particular, there’s his marvellous reaction on realising who Katniss’ arrow has sought out, a brief amusement before the crowd, baying for blood, descend on him.

There are similar problems of representation with the younger cast. The ones who cause spark to fly, Claflin, Jena Malone and Natalie Dormer (who, along with Pollux decides not to go the distance in getting rid President Snow, which as played is a bit abrupt and possibly chicken livered), aren’t given paltry screen time, and we’re expected to find the inert love triangle between Katniss, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) involving. Unfortunately, Lawrence must choose between two guys who don’t exactly bring the charisma, and she opts for the titch with whom she has zero chemistry.

I wouldn’t be quite so unkind to Hutcherson as to label him the Taylor Lautner of The Hunger Games, since he can approximate a performance – although I’m not sure I could take another scene of Peeta frothing about his brainwashing – but it’s impossible to be invested in Katniss and Peeta luxuriating with their burgeoning brood in a golden meadow come the final scene (which seems to take an eternity to get to; I was half expecting a further cut to Old Gammy Katniss). Perhaps Peeta’s conditioning will kick in once again during the closing credits?

The differing moral philosophies of Katniss and Gale provide a strong enough dividing line for why it isn’t to be between them, but it might have done the picture more of a service to present his case less brusquely. Likewise, the blunt response of Johanna over whether there should be a Capitol games; too frequently the picture takes the easy route of Katniss being all on her own on her moral high ground.

That’s a failing generally, though; there might have been some agency in charting an ambiguous course we see with the uncertain political future of the districts (people have short memories, we are told; they’re definitely in trouble with Patina Miller’s Paylor, who doesn’t fare well with lines like “the sadistic inventions of game makers meant to make sport of our deaths”). Accordingly, Katniss doesn’t end up with gumby Peeta out of love. Rather, it’s an attempt to find stability between two broken people. If that was the intent, it doesn’t translate because her relationship with Peeta has never been convincing on any level.

The action though, when it comes, is top notch, as you’d expect from Lawrence. Perhaps also as you’d expect from Lawrence (the helmer of I Am Legend) he has a penchant for CGI beasties (and CGI oil), although the Mutts here are rather better rendered than Will Smith’s adversaries. That sequence is fairly intense Aliens-grade stuff for a 12-certificate, although, by this point in the movie, it’s become patently obvious that Katniss carrying a bow around a war zone is about the dumb as, I don’t know, one of the Avengers using it as his weapon of choice. Even stronger is the lack of punch pulling in the aforementioned infant massacre. The picture’s to be congratulated for not making war fun, although alas it’s mostly only really good when war is fun, as the deadly game of booby traps and dismemberments through the streets of the Capitol attests.

It will be interesting to see how studio Lionsgate’s fortunes fare now their half-decade-plus of YA coffers-fillers has run dry. The moderately successful at best Divergent is probably closer to what any studio should expect if they’re lucky, given the copious corpses of failed YA fare strewn across the last few years, rather than the Twilights and Hunger Games. As for The Hunger Games’ legacy, as with Harry Potter it was an error to split its final instalment. Mockingjay – Part 2, and its immediate predecessor, will probably be awarded merit points by devotees of the novels, for whom more is usually more, but the decision has hobbled the potential of what was a naturally cinematic series.

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