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Review: 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2' is dark, organic and deep

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 concludes the scrappiest movie franchise to emerge from the post-Harry Potter run on young adult lit adaptations.

Not the richest or sexiest, and certainly not with Harry's magical production budgets, but it's a series doing little like any others, stretching the theme limitations that blockbusters placed on themselves. By design or necessity, The Hunger Games movies concentrate on story more than spectacle, allowing a savage antiwar allegory to ring through.

This has never been kids stuff but Mockingjay, Part 2 (Mock 2 for short) is shocking for how far its characters — especially Panem's President Snow (Donald Sutherland) — will go to survive. Terrorism and genocide are heavy subtexts for a holiday blockbuster, but here they are, one sequence especially unsettling after recent Paris attacks.

Despite the unfortunate timing, such strokes of war and collateral emotional damage are what set The Hunger Games apart from knock-offs like Divergent and The Maze Runner. Novelist Suzanne Collins actually seems to have planned this dark arc, its narrative more organic than Twilight, a lightning strike demanding others to be written.

Mock 2 picks up where part 1 ended, no "previously on Hunger Games" remedial necessary, opening cold on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) being examined after a battering by her Hunger Games co-champion Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Peeta's brainwashing by Snow is being dried out, and Katniss' concern conflicts with her relationship with Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).

Romance has never been this franchise's forte, mostly because Katniss' determination interrupts throughout the saga. Still, the screenplay leans heavily on Peeta's post-romantic stress syndrome, which isn't interesting, and Katniss' reversal of reluctance to be the Mockingjay, leading the revolution against Snow. That thread is interesting because it's played so cynically.

Rather than sending Katniss to the front lines of battle, the insurgency's President Coin (Julianne Moore) orders her to stay back, recording "propos" — propaganda videos — boosting rebel spirits. The truth is something else, and Katniss' insubordination is like a revolt within a revolt as she struggles to keep her oath to kill Snow.

Mock 2's midsection settles into a video game rhythm, with Katniss and her accomplices trekking 75 blocks through the Capitol in the midst of a security lockdown. The city is booby-trapped with motion-triggered firing machine guns, flamethrowers or a flooding oil slick. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to his star) fashions one action showstopper, a subterranean assault by "Mutts," mutants swarming like the undead.

One note on Jennifer Lawrence, who I'm certain is glad to see this franchise complete, making time for better projects. She might've coasted since Catching Fire, Oscar and celebrity in hand. Instead, Lawrence makes every moments as Katniss count, pouring out mixed feelings through puffy eyes. The final, poignant shot is of a Katniss at peace, assured that she gave her all; an actor tapping into a character's moment she understands.

Mock 2 is good to a few characters and actors, first and foremost Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose death before production wrapped is handled respectfully, if not seamlessly. St. Petersburg's Eugenie Bondurant has a brief but striking role as Tigris, a feline-enhanced rebel ally. Sutherland's kiss-off is a doozy, mocking the Mockingjay with a crazed cackle.

Other franchise veterans aren't so lucky. Stanley Tucci gets one scene as Caesar Flickerman, toned down for Capitol-controlled TV. Jeffrey Wright's Beetee barely says anything. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson are on the brink of the same fate until late, when Lawrence chooses to stretch things.

Unlike many who'll see Mock 2, I haven't read Collins' books and had no idea where Katniss' story would lead. Her destination may slightly disappoint, but the journey, with its bargain basement fantasy offset by uncommonly mature themes, is the only one in this genre I'd watch start-to-finish again.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Clafin, Willow Shields, Jena Malone, Eugenie Bondurant, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright

Screenplay: Peter Gregg, Danny Strong, Suzanne Collins, based on the novel by Collins

Rating: PG-13; intense action violence, disturbing images

Running time: 137 min.

Grade: B+

Review: 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2' is dark, organic and deep 11/18/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 18, 2015 9:27pm]
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