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Review: 'Divergent' doesn't need to be 'Hunger Games' (w/video)

"The future belongs to those who know where they belong," declares the icy villain of Divergent, an action fantasy with fewer frills and thrills than The Hunger Games but feeling good about that. The movie knows its runner-up place, and capably fills it.

Divergent is another courting of YA moviegoers flocking to the Twilight saga and Panem's rebellion then scattering when unreasonable facsimiles are shoved at them. This wannabe franchise is the surest shot yet, given Veronica Roth's bestselling book series and catching a rising star in Shailene Woodley, a formula that stoked the The Hunger Games phenomenon. Similarities don't end there.

Woodley's Tris Prior could be Katniss Everdeen's cousin, born into dystopia and bred for greatness. She's part of the Abnegation clan, one of five factions in future Chicago, not unlike the 12 districts of The Hunger Games. These are divided by characteristics: Abnegation folks are do-gooders, helping the poor (yay!) Erudites are smart lawyer types (boo!). Candor speak in unfiltered truth for comic relief. Amity are peaceful and therefore least necessary in an action flick.

Then there are the Dauntless, the most photogenic of the bunch, an army of parkour daredevils romping through the decayed urban landscape like a road company of Rent. Dauntless spends its down time hanging around the Pit, a concrete commons area you can only enter by free fall. (Exiting isn't explained.) They prefer defying death by climbing girders and dead Ferris wheels, and hopping subway trains like extreme hoboes. Dauntless are so cool.

Tris wants to be Dauntless, a decision made after a hallucinogenic aptitude test shows her to be Divergent, a rare mix of three factions. She can't tell her parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) who'd be crushed to lose their little missionary. But the test isn't binding; in a choosing ceremony Tris decides to join Dauntless and never return to Abnegation. Good fashion choice.

As a transfer newbie with spunk, Tris is a razzing target for Dauntless lead bully Eric (Jai Courtney), sort of a buff Biff from Back to the Future. Tough at first then softening into Tris' love interest is Four (Theo James). Think James Franco in a gym. Lots of training sessions, mostly hand-to-hand combat and knife tossing. Some discussion about Divergents being targeted by the aforementioned villain, a Hillary Clinton clone played by Kate Winslet. Seeds planted for a franchise that'll probably pan out this time.

A sequel needs to hit the ground running faster than Divergent does. Find more notes for Woodley's elegantly plain face to express. Give Lecanto High grad Miles Teller more to do as Peter, Tris' nagging nemesis. Conjure more thrilling scenes like Tris' final initiation into Dauntless, a breakneck zipline through Chicago's skyline. Movie action typically zigs and zags but that scene sticks out because it's different, direct, unadorned. Nothing like The Hunger Games. That's where Divergent belongs.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.

Shailene Woodley is Tris Prior (think Katniss Everdeen) and Theo James is her love interest, Four.

Summit Entertainment

Shailene Woodley is Tris Prior (think Katniss Everdeen) and Theo James is her love interest, Four.

Divergent

Director: Neil Burger

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Miles Teller, Maggie Q, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Ray Stevenson

Screenplay: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor, based on the novel by Veronica Roth

Rating: PG-13; violence, brief profanity

Running time: 139 min.

Grade: B

Review: 'Divergent' doesn't need to be 'Hunger Games' (w/video) 03/20/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 20, 2014 9:07pm]

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