There’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 where Jennifer Lawrence is running away from an explosion. Well, OK, there a lot of scenes, here and throughout the series, where she’s running away from explosions, so I’m not sure why I found myself paying particular attention to this one. But look at what she’s doing, in any of those scenes, and it’s sort of striking; she’s never just running, or just fighting, or just shooting. No matter what’s happening, she is absolutely present, in the moment, and riveting. The notion that Jennifer Lawrence is somehow underrated is patently ridiculous, but it does seem as though she doesn’t get enough credit for what she brings to these films — and how much her approach speaks to their ultimate success.
And thus, you pretty much know what you’re going to get by now. Picking up (as one might expect from the title) shortly after where last year’s Mockingjay — Part 1 left off, the new film finds Katniss (Lawrence) at odds with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who’s still in the clutches of whatever brainwashing he was subjected to at the Capitol. Said Capitol’s days are numbered, as the rebellion grows stronger and the remaining districts unite; the bulk of the running time is spent on Katniss and her unit’s attempt to penetrate the Capitol, dodging Peacekeepers, soldiers, and a series of obstructions created by their Gamemakers. (Or, as Finnick notes before they head out, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 76th Hunger Games.”)
By this point in the series, the pros and cons are established, and the scorecard doesn’t shift much. The political undertones remain refreshingly scrambled; there are few easy one-to-one allusions here, and if Snow’s assertions that “our enemies do not look like us, they don’t share our values” and “they’re coming to destroy our way of life” are startlingly Trump-ish (in fact, his entire arc has a decidedly “Last Days of Nixon” vibe), I’m sure some lucky soul will get a nice check from Breitbart for their “Coin Is Hillary” piece. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Katniss’ ongoing dialogue on the politics and morality of warfare, meanwhile, seem particularly timely.
And there’s one last round of what Johanna (Jena Malone, charging in briefly like a twisting live wire) rightly dubs Katniss’ “whole tacky romance drama,” the love triangle with Peeta and Gale that’s never quite landed, simply because the emotional opacity that makes Katniss such a compelling character merely makes such a contrivance frustrating. “What’s going on in your head?” Gale asks her, early on; she replies, “I don’t know,” and the problem, throughout the series, is that the filmmakers never bothered figuring it out either. (The fact that one of the suitors indirectly yet ultimately makes the choice for her renders the entire running subplot even less interesting.)
There are other fumbles, here and there. Director Francis Lawrence sometimes builds to his set pieces better than he executes them; his action is occasionally lacking in clarity, and though the time spent threading the needle of an attack by the Capitol’s “mutts” pays off in some first-rate tension, the creatures themselves are like something parachuted in from another, lesser movie (an Underworld sequel, perhaps). And the script comes down with a bad case of Lord of the Rings-itis, piling on ending after ending, up to and including an epilogue that is, to put it mildly, superfluous.
But even in such moments, the acting carries it. There’s a long scene of Katniss trying to jump-start Peeta’s memories by telling him things about himself, and it’s the best example of the efficient yet connected acting Lawrence has brought to the entire series. Hutcherson latches on to the twitchy instability of his character, and juices it; he’s more interesting here than he’s ever been in the series, by a long shot. And while Philip Seymour Hoffman’s big scenes were rather obviously rewritten after his untimely death, his presence is felt even in the scenes where his role is minor; this was always an actor who could shine even when functioning primarily as atmosphere and exposition.
“When I see you again, it’s gonna be a different world,” Peeta tells Katniss late in the film, and it’s an unexpectedly powerful moment, underscoring (as does an earlier scene between her and Prim, the bond that started this whole thing) the scope of this series, and the finality of its conclusion. For the past three falls, a new Hunger Games movie has come around to remind us that so many of its elements — blockbuster franchise, YA novel adaptation, multiple films from one book — aren’t inherently evil. They can spark compelling characterization, thoughtful acting, and big-canvas storytelling. And for that, among other things, this series will be missed.
The Hunger Games: Mockingay—Part 2 opens Friday.