Audiences got pissy about last year's Mockingjay – Part 1, the third film in the Hunger Games franchise. They rightly felt gamed by a blatant cash grab that took the last book in Suzanne Collins' bestselling young-adult trilogy and carved out two movies when a single would have done. Part 1 was so padded and puffed up that the exciting parts got lost in the stuffing.
The good news is that Mockingjay – Part 2, the big finale, has quit the ass-dragging in favor of what made the book a page-turner. There's the visual fireworks, for sure. But there's also the darkness of the theme about how power can corrupt heroes as well as villains. Director Francis Lawrence returns with screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong, and they behave like workhorses with the bridles off.
Will this new energy reverse the series' diminishing box office? Mockingjay – Part 1 fell more than $70 million short of the original's wowza $408 million gross. If Mockingjay – Part 2 rides into boffo nirvana, thank the actress in the saddle. Jennifer Lawrence has won an Oscar (Silver Linings Playbook) and global stardom since she first played the role of Katniss Everdeen, in 2012. Lawrence, 25, took Katniss from a shy teen enslaved in poverty to become the "girl on fire," the rebel freedom fighter armed only with bow and arrow and a spirit to bring down the Capitol, run by the despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Lawrence is the kind of star you'd follow anywhere, which makes her the perfect Katniss.
Even when the Hunger Games series gets winded pimping old tricks, Lawrence is the oxygen that brings it back to life. Katniss seizes her role as the Mockingjay, the symbol of hope for the movement to end Snow's reign of terror. The movie gives her other obstacles. Frankly, I don't give a damn whether Katniss ends up with dull Gale (Liam Hemsworth) or puckish Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who's brainwashed by Snow, but not enough to give him a personality.
The juice comes outside the love story. Sutherland is a sneering delight as Snow. Julianne Moore excels as Alma Coin, the rebel leader Katniss trusts at her peril. Elizabeth Banks is a marvel as shallow Effie Trinket, the fashion eccentric (think Gaga unleashed) who becomes a Katniss ally. Philip Seymour Hoffman didn't live to finish his role as gamemaster Plutarch. But we hear the character's final words in a letter movingly read by Woody Harrelson's Haymitch.
Though Katniss is tracked by Cressida (Natalie Dormer), a videographer tasked with propagandizing the Mockingjay as a reality star, Lawrence makes sure we see Katniss coming into her own. Even with the rush of action – firebombs, land mines, underground mutants, a near-drowning in black oil – Katniss finds her moral center. That gravity is a risk in a Hollywood aimed at short attention spans. But it sets Mockingjay – Part 2 above the herd and lets The Hunger Games go out in style. Sweet.