The 4-film Hunger Games saga comes to a grim yet satisfying conclusion in the dark and violent Mockingjay: Part 2. Bucking the trend of franchises that stumble in their final acts, this fourth and final film not only sticks the landing but gives its dauntless heroine Katness Everdeen the triumphant send-off she deserves. Like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, this is a finale that’s truly worth the wait. It’s a full-on war epic, rife with sequences of brutal gun battles, nasty deaths and scenes that look like they would be perfectly home in Aliens or The Descent. Yes, it earns its PG-13 rating, and then some.
Last fall’s Mockingjay Part 1 was a dull and plodding cash-grab. It was a major disappointment, especially coming off the heels of the terrific Catching Fire, still the franchise’s best film. But watching Part 2, it becomes clear that in the end Part 1 did serve a purpose: By spending the majority of its running time on exposition and setting up the pieces, it allowed this second half to dive right into the action and focus on throttling ahead to the inevitable showdown between Katniss and Donald Sutherland’s delightfully devious President Snow.
At the end of Part 1, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was nearly choked to death by a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who, thanks to the President Snow’s torturers, was transformed from a cuddly wallflower to a bug-eyed murderous gremlin. When Part 2 opens, Peeta is still suffering from the after-effects of his ordeal, unable to control himself despite his best intentions. He’s become an unwitting weapon whose sole mission is to destroy Katniss, the one he loved the most. Meanwhile, Katniss, who still bears the hideous scars of that attack, continues to struggle in her role as an icon of propaganda for the rebellion.
As the rebellion’s “fearless leader” Coin (Julianne Moore) and her right hand man Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last appearance) continue to exploit Katniss as a symbol to rally Panem’s 12 districts in their vicious guerrilla war against the Capitol and President Snow, Katniss decides to take things into her own hands. She sneaks away to the front, joining an elite team of warriors including Boggs (House of Cards’ Mahershala Ali), Finnick (Sam Claflin) and sometime friend/lover Gale (Liam Hemsworth) on a mission to invade Snow’s headquarters and assassinate him. Peeta too has been brought along for the ride, mostly as a tool of propaganda.
But Snow, conniving bastard that he is, has anticipated the rebellion’s move and has rigged the now-evacuated bombed out urban jungle with a legion of lethal booby-traps. Among the terrors that await them are gigantic motion-censored machine guns capable of obliterating bodies in seconds, a living-breathing black goo that turns anything it touches into ash, walls of flames, and most terrifying of all, a swarm of vicious man-eating mutants. This later encounter with the mutants in the abandoned tunnels under the city is the film’s most show-stopping action sequence—a breathlessly-cut, relentless and sentimentality-free set-piece in which some of the series’ most endearing characters meet their end in surprisingly gory ways. It’s a stark example of how this franchise has never been one to neuter its dystopian world for family audiences.
Chief among the architects of this smart franchise is director Francis Lawrence who took over the reins from Gary Ross with Catching Fire. Mockingjay Part 2 is his third time at bat, and perhaps his most assured outing as the series’ guardian. He paints this final entry on the grand canvas that’s befitting for a finale of this scale. Like its immediate predecessor, darkness doesn’t lurk in the shadows anymore; its front and center, and Lawrence, working off a smart script by Danny Strong and Peter Craig, doesn’t shy away from depicting how President Coin’s violent revolution can be as nasty and horrifying as President Snow’s fascist regime. Mockingjay Part 2 is so somber that I don’t believe there’s a single joke through its running time.
Like in Catching Fire, Lawrence infuses the action sequences with suspense and grit, qualities that enhance the stakes but never at the expense of narrative coherence. But his handling of intimate character moments, such as the ones between Katniss and Peeta, and especially the gripping finale, are even more impressive, proving once again that he was a strong choice to safely nurture this franchise to its conclusion.
As for the other Lawrence at the heart of this series, there’s not much left to be said. Jennifer has been the one constant in this franchise, even when it has faltered. She was the best thing about its uneven first installment (The Hunger Games), the raging flame of its finest entry (Catching Fire), the force that saw the dull Mockingjay Part 1 to its ending, and the heart and soul of this stirring albeit downbeat finale. Although that gargantuan Jennifer Lawrence personality that’s played a part in enabling her to become the world’s biggest movie star is nowhere to be seen here, this is yet another powerful turn from the 25-year-old superstar. Her Katniss is a wounded soldier who knows that although the end is nigh, the price she’s had to pay are innumerable. If this saga stands the test of time, especially in the canon of YA series, and I think it will, it’ll be primarily because of her soulful and commanding performance.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Danny Strong
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore
Producers: Nina Jacobson, John Kilik
Running time: 137 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for some thematic material