Weighed down by its own unbridled portentousness, the final chapter of “The Hunger Games” saga grinds into cinemas, bleaker and more brutal than anything that’s come before. Unfortunately, it also brings with it the narrative sluggishness which has plagued the franchise and its utter reliance on its leading lady almost brings the story to breaking point.
As President Coin’s rebellion marches on The Capitol, Katniss decides that President Snow must die. Smuggling herself to the front lines, she is assigned to a propaganda unit but as the conflict intensifies, she finds herself swept along by events, propelling her towards a final, fateful showdown with Snow.
Structurally flawed by the decision to split the final book into two movies, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” suffers pacing problems from the very start. For the first two thirds of its hefty 137 minute running time, it’s a stuttering, narrative foxtrot of slow, slow, quick, quick, slow as sporadic moments of surprisingly ferocious (for a 12A) violence punctuate the various scenes of people sitting around staring disconsolately into the middle distance. Admittedly, the final third perks up a bit, and there are some real edge-of-the-seat sequences, such as the Mutt attack in the sewers but if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen many of the standout moments already and the unsubtle script and heavy handed score telegraph pretty much every twist, surprise or revelation so far in advance that even those who haven’t read the books are unlikely to be taken unawares.
The time wasted moping around is particularly aggravating considering they sit sullenly side by side with achingly awkward, long scenes of heavy exposition dumping, the burden of which mostly falls on Mahershala Ali’s Boggs. Mind you, any sympathy you may have for their expository burden will be undermined by the contempt you’ll develop for the tactical acumen of the rebel military, and Boggs’ squad in particular. There are a number of bone-headed decisions made by otherwise apparently reasonable and sane characters in order to service the plot, especially in regards to Peeta’s involvement and while the novel may present more scope for finer shades of grey, on film it’s hard not to see some of the choices made as reckless endangerment.
Were it not for the impressive performance of Jennifer Lawrence, the whole thing would collapse under the weight of its bleak, contrived and heavy handed storytelling. Lawrence’s real skill is in bringing as much of Katniss’ inner monologue to the screen without dialogue. It’s not until this film that I think I finally get Katniss as a character (I haven’t read the books). She’s not a hero, she’s not a warrior and she’s certainly not a pre-destined chosen one. In fact, she’s only a chosen one in that she is selected by the players of a larger game to become a focal point, a figurehead for other’s agendas.
She’s the very antithesis of the usual Young Adult literature protagonist and we’ve spent nearly four films watching her being used, abused and manipulated by all sides in a conflict she wants no part of. Her sense of obligation and drive to protect her loved ones is the driving force behind everything she does and the genius of Lawrence’s performance is she manages to bring much of this to the screen, unsupported by the script or the novel’s ability to let us into Katniss’ thoughts. Over the four films, it’s a remarkable achievement and it’s what ultimately saves the film from being a violent and depressing two hour special effects spectacle. The moment when Katniss finally, after everything that’s she’s been through, everything she’s been coerced into doing, makes a choice and takes some action (in response to the movie’s most shocking moment) it’s deeply satisfying on a character level (even if it’s not that surprising on a plot level).
Donald Sutherland’s President Snow is better than he’s ever been here and more so once he is the captive rather than the captor. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch provides an adequate stand-in for the few scenes which were clearly intended for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman while Julianne Moore gradually sheds any cloak of subtlety over the course of the film to the point where she’s almost chewing the enrubbled scenery of the Capitol by the film’s denouement. The rest of the cast don’t really get a look in. The franchise’s best character by miles, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is criminally neglected and there’s little for everyone else to do but to hang around Katniss waiting for her to march wearily onwards.
The film leaves a few loose ends – there’s no indication of the ultimate fate of Stanley Tucci’s loathsome TV host Caeser Flickerman for example – and struggles to figure out how to end as it parades a seemingly endless sequence of epilogues.
It does nothing to vindicate the decision to split the last book of the series into two movies but “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” at least retains the courage of its protagonist’s convictions and allows Lawrence’s performance rather than the need for rousing spectacle to win in the end.