As the Hunger Games franchise pushes towards its inevitable conclusion, the pomp, circumstance, and showmanship of the previous installments seem worlds away. Aside from the occasional public address via hologram, or a look at President Snow (Donald Sutherland) inside his opulent mansion built by evil deeds and corruption, the film follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she and her trusted friends and allies go on a rogue mission to (unbeknownst to some of them) assassinate Snow. Traversing through frigid landscapes, sewage systems, and abandoned buildings, Mockingjay, Part 2 does a good job of depicting the grim circumstances that are sure to spell the demise of one side of this conflict or the other.
In the ultimate Hunger Games battle, Katniss goes against the instructions of the shrewd and conniving leader of the rebellion, President Coin (a fine performance by Julianne Moore, one of the most reliable actors on the planet), who wants her to play her part for the rebels' cause by taking part in staged battles to boost the morale of those actually fighting on the front lines. The problem is that Katniss wants to shed real blood; she wants to pull the trigger on Snow herself (or the bow and arrow, as it were). Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Cressida (Natalie Dormer), a still semi-brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and others join Katniss on her kamikaze mission, which involves navigating their way through traps designed to blow them up, suffocating sludge, and beasts seemingly borrowed from the early draft of a J.K. Rowling novel. In keeping with the rest of the series, however, the real horror lies in what our heroine learns about the true machinations of this war.
The biggest pitfall in adapting a hugely popular book series into a film franchise is pleasing the droves of readers who are eager for the script to match the vivid descriptions on the page. The Hunger Games movies seem to have, in large part, given longtime fans exactly what they want, a decision which brings about a big question: Is it possible to surprise audiences when the story is already so well-known? Director Francis Lawrence manages to use the tight plot structure of these films to his advantage, relying on the series' dreary, disillusioned finale to create an even grimmer dystopia. The apocalyptic setting provides a quite suitable backdrop for the character of Katniss Everdeen, perhaps the most authentic female hero of the past decade or so, and brings into great relief the stoic demeanor she displays throughout her hunt for Snow and during the tension between her current beau Gale and past flame Peeta.
Mockingjay, Part 2 also draws on the rest of its ace cast members to bring the characters from Suzanne Collins' books to life, and all of them are up to the task. Jennifer Lawrence concludes her star-making turn as the Girl on Fire with another assured performance as the strong yet vulnerable embodiment of an entire political movement. Sutherland offers his most devious performance to date, and he looks like he's having a ball being bad most of the time. Natalie Dormer has ensured herself more high-profile work with her solid portrayal of Cressida, the spiritual sister of Katniss, who could have spawned a female buddy comedy in another world. Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing Plutarch Heavensbee in his final film appearance, does wonders with a Cheshire Cat's smile and a raised eyebrow. The most transfixing performance in the movie, however, is Jena Malone's Johanna Mason, the only non-brainwashed character unafraid to challenge Katniss, and to call her out for the protection and leeway she is offered thanks to her position as the symbol of the revolution. Mason is opinionated, angry, and fearless, and she steals the spotlight every time she is featured onscreen (which isn't often enough).
And therein lies the problem with this final chapter: The most compelling characters in the story are frequently forced into the background, which minimizes the benefits of having an all-star acting ensemble for these films. Viewers eager for more classic moments with Haymitch will be treated to only a few shots of Woody Harrelson shaking his head and smirking while siding with Katniss, and not much else. There is only one meaningful scene with Elizabeth Banks' vivacious Effie Trinket (which Banks absolutely knocks out of the park), and Jeffrey Wright and Stanley Tucci, both outstanding actors, were essentially brought in for just two scenes, after which they were free to enjoy the complimentary buffet on set. The likely cause of so many actors being forgotten was the decision to split the final book into two installments; as a result, this movie contains a lot of the essential action, forcing many of the important characters to fade into offscreen purgatory with nothing to do. The Harry Potter and Twilight series (this just keeps coming up, doesn't it? The filmmakers behind the Divergent franchise should probably take note of this problem) did the same thing, and while it was good for the financial bottom line to get two pictures out of one film's worth of action, viewers are often frustrated by this choice since splitting important events and developments evenly between two parts is hardly an exact science. It's somewhat ironic that the final chapter of a story about preventing a repeat of past harmful events manages to do just that to readers and moviegoers who were burned by the cinematic endings of Rowling and Stephenie Meyer's sagas. Oh well, that just leaves room for more of Gale and Peeta looking forlorn and/or pensive. The characters might have been imbued with psychological layers on the page, but Hemsworth gives off about as much emotion as the actual pen Suzanne Collins used to write the books.
All in all, the books' readers will not be disappointed by this undoubtedly faithful adaptation. To its credit, the film delivers a cold, authentic, and wholly earned climax to the series that created one of the most beloved heroines of this generation. Yet the two parts of Mockingjay ultimately add up to an unsatisfying experience. Greed can be good in Hollywood, but when that means overextending a story, as is the case here, it brings into question how the adaptation of a multipart literary tale will end up being influenced by executives' desire to inflate their paychecks. Hey, look at that, another cynical ending.