2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
What do you get when you greedily split a book in two? Long-winded filler with only pockets of tense action. Or, in Hunger Games terms: all smoke, no Girl on Fire.
Sorry, Team Katniss. Mockingjay, the weakest book of Suzanne Collins’ blockbuster trilogy, has been adapted into a forgettable installment that fails to stand on its own. Fans of the film series might watch this grim political drama and desperately long for the days when young tributes were forced to kill each other on TV. Now those were thrilling good times.
We pick things up where Catching Fire left off. Specifically after our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), abruptly destroyed the Quarter Quell games, got scooped up from the ruins and was solemnly informed, "There is no District 12!" She wakes up in the secret, sterile and spartan bunker of the fabled District 13. Her guides: former gamemaker Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appears throughout the film) and efficiently brisk, silver-haired President Coin (Julianne Moore, making a sturdy first impression). As they tell it, most districts have revolted. The citizens are primed for a Capitol uprising. They just need a leader — and only one will do.
But hold your arrows: That rebellion doesn’t actually happen until Part 2.
So consider this film a two-hour-long staging area. Act One, in fact, might as well be subtitled “This is what happened to all your favorite characters.” One by one, we revisit them. A gaunt Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is being held captive by the Capitol and giving brainwashed TV interviews to Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). Finnick (Sam Claflin) hangs with Katniss and still desperately misses his beloved Annie. Effie (Elizabeth Banks) has been forced to give up the elaborate dresses and wigs and must make do with a do-rag. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) stumbles around in a glorified cameo and still calls Katniss "Darlin'." And Gale (Liam Hemsworth) glowers around Katniss and . . . eh, three movies in and still not sure what Gale is up to.
Katniss, for her part, spends most of her time performing her duties as the symbolic Mockingjay. Outfitted in a sleek new uniform designed in advance by Cinna (RIP), she films raw propaganda videos around the districts to rally the troops and intimidate President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In the most harrowing clip, she and her crew (which includes newcomer Natalie Dormer) go to District 8 and visit injured adults and children. Moments later, the makeshift hospital is bombed. But the next district visit — to the rubbles of District 12 — is far less effective.
The problem is obvious. No matter how many fatalistic white roses President Snow leaves for Katniss, she’s not in danger, girl. (A little Ghost humor, anyone?) At least not yet. With the big climax still to come, the stakes for her — and her loved ones — are frustratingly low. Once this realization takes hold, the set pieces become devoid of tension. Even when District 13 is under attack, and Katniss, her younger sister Prim, and Gale almost get trapped in some sort of “fourth quadrant,” the odds are in everyone’s favor that they all survive. Contrast this sequence with the breathless life-or-death drama of the 74th annual Games, which was a Russian Roulette wheel of brutality.
At least the action bits offer a refreshing break from the humdrum talk of strategy and politics and computer technology. You actually welcome the peculiar scene in which Katniss herself sings an extended rallying cry. (Coming soon: Mockingjay, the musical!)
Still, the heart-stopping last 10 minutes — more like a tease — do offer tantalizing promise of a magnificent grand finale in 2015. Here’s hoping it soars.