When it comes down to it, “The Hunger Games” movies don’t have any business being as good as they are. The first movie could get by on pluck and originality, featuring a future world where children hunt each other in the ultimate of reality-show deprivation.
The second film “Catching Fire” was essentially the exact same movie as the first and still somehow managed to rise toward the top of last year’s cinematic heap.
Now we have the final chapter “Mockingjay” making a tricky pivot in tone and splitting into two parts (let’s hear it for profit maximization!) and the movie still winds up — somehow, someway — being surprisingly decent.
The vast majority of the credit for “The Hunger Games” franchise should go to the cast, and most importantly to Jennifer Lawrence, without whom this sucker would surely crash and burn.
Her portrayal of heroine Katniss Everdeen is about as deep and layered as you are going to find in a Hollywood blockbuster. She swings from moments of reserved self-doubt to steely, brash defiance so believably and effortlessly she transforms this two-dimensional character into a fully-realized human being.
She can even make you believe she would actually choose wet blanket Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) — now being held and used as a puppet by the sinister Capitol — over hunky, soulful warrior Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).
Most of the ridiculously top-shelf talent is back with everyone completely selling all of this ridiculousness. Of course, anytime you jam the margins of your movie with the likes of Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, and Woody Harrelson, you’re probably going to stumble into a good movie just by turning the cameras on.
Rounding out the cast is the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Mockingjay — Part 2” will be his final onscreen performance) and newcomer Julianne Moore as President of the rebellion Alma Coin.
Tossing in Moore at this point is the cinematic equivalent of running up the score. She’s great here, but then you probably already guessed that.
There’s not a whole lot of story development going on as Katniss is now holed up with the rebellion and reluctantly leading an army against the Capitol. Most of what happens is merely a prelude to what promises to be an action-packed “Part 2.”
Director Francis Lawrence (who helmed “Catching Fire” and will also direct the final film) does a decent job of wrangling the proceedings, even though this flick labors at times with excess padding, thanks to extending what should essentially be one movie into two.
Again, what makes this franchise stand out against the landscape is how it unapologetically chucks social commentary at your head without being ham-fisted or self-righteous.
The point “Mockingjay” is trying to make isn’t as sharp or polished as its predecessors, but its illustration of how image and messaging are just as vital to war as they are to a good marketing campaign is eerily prescient; especially when at the moment the terrorist organization ISIS is unnerving the world by uploading slick and disturbing propaganda clips to the Internet.
I’m starting to have my doubts “The Hunger Games” saga is going to stick the landing, but for all their shortcomings, these movies have said some bold and interesting things, which puts them miles ahead of most entertainment aimed at teens. It’s a low bar, but I’m glad somebody’s clearing it.
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, and thematic material.