There are times expectations can be a danger. When the film adaptation of The Hunger Games was released in 2012, it had the weight of a legion of Suzanne Collins fans and pop culture zeitgeist behind it, but managed to be little more than a vaguely interesting (if derivative) story told in a mediocre fashion by director Gary Ross. The world of Panem and the cast were enough of a drive to come back for a second helping, Catching Fire, which managed to fix every problem of its predecessor, coming together under new director Francis Lawrence to create a genre-defining near-masterpiece of action adventure cinema, a blistering and scintillating look at dystopian society with a maturity and sophistication that belies its young adult roots. The unerring quality of Catching Fire created a fever pitch of anticipation for its final act, only slightly tempered when its was announced it would be split into two films. Mockingjay Part 1 had its positives, but felt criminally overlong for its subject matter, and did not succeed in justifying itself as its own film. And yet this arguably drummed up even more excitement thanks to its shocking end and the promise of massive spectacle as the rebels of District 13 were poised to attack the Capital and take back Panem for the people.
Despite this, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 begins quietly, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) still recovering from the surprise attack by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)m her partner-turned-lover-turned-aggressor due to torture at the hands of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The leaders of the rebellion, President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final role) want to hold her back from the fighting, valuing her more as a symbol than a soldier. Katniss of course will have none of this, and travels to the front lines to reunite with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and take a team into the Capitol to kill Snow once and for all and end all of this madness. With her camera crew (Natalie Dormer, Elden Henson and Wes Chatham) and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) in tow, Katniss and squad leader Boggs (Mahershala Ali) must navigate the team through a series of traps and past squads of Peacekeepers to make their way across the Capitol to Snow’s compound.
To get things out of the way with brevity, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is not a good film, and is almost certainly the worst of the four part series. The biggest problem at its core is its pacing. After the plodding, overly contemplative The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, the scene was set for a series of huge action set pieces (as so described in President Coin’s final speech at the end of that film) as the rebels storm the Capital. It is the same approach the Harry Potter series used for their Deathly Hallows two parter, the first overlong and understuffed, but all in deference to the second, a propulsive and undeniably satisfying thrill ride. This is the one upside to the otherwise onerous choice of splitting these films into two (or, even worse, three - looking at you, The Hobbit) parts unnecessarily. But when the film fails to deliver on this potential and instead follows up with a second straight installment defined by its glacial pace and lack of interest, things go downhill quickly.
The bulk of the film consists of Katniss’ small team making their way to Snow’s mansion through a series of booby-trapped streets (their way of keeping the “Games” intact), but in practice, these sequences are shockingly devoid of excitement. The crew seems to spend as much (if not more) time hunkered down for the night in yet another nondescript ruined building wondering whether/when Peeta is going to try to kill them than they do fighting whatever sadistic trap the gamemakers have set up for them to combat (not to mention the fact that most of the traps consist of turrets popping out of nowhere and firing at them and little more than that). It is a case of diminishing returns on these scenes, and the filmmakers go to the well about three too many times. The camera crew from Mockingjay Part 1 suddenly become badass commandos when the need arises, despite having never shown any evidence of actual training. Deaths happen, often demanding relevance or some sort of emotional catharsis despite the deceased being little more than recently introduced underdeveloped fodder, and when the characters that do matter die, the film rushes on without giving the moment a chance to breathe. There is a reason for doing this, of course, forcing Katniss to soldier on without allowing for proper grief, ratcheting up the pressure on her until she snaps, but within the context of the film and its agonizing pacing, it just feels like another case of miscalibration. The moments that do not matter receive too much time, and those that do receive too little. It builds into a quite profoundly frustrating experience.
It is not all bad; director Francis Lawrence has the technical know-how to at least shoot the miasma with grace and elan (though after nearly four hours of Mockingjays, the drab gray color palette and landscapes of smoking destroyed highrises becomes rather tiresome and repetitive), and there are a few high points, including one stand-out sequence, a highly tense, at times often terrifying underground chase sequence that often recalls the pressure cooker atmosphere of The Descent. Donald Sutherland remains a preening, gleefully and theatrically arch villain (though the less said about his rebellion counterpart Julianne Moore’s performance the better), and Hutcherson puts in a strong, conflicted performance (Jennifer Lawrence, however, never seems entirely at home once she embraces the role of inspiring leader).
Indeed, it is possible that one three hour version (even two and a half, when taking into account the considerable padding on both sides of the equation) of Mockingjay could be satisfying. It is also possible that the disease present here, the uneven pacing, the way important and interesting characters simply disappear (poor Jena Malone has nothing to do with her considerable talents) or never get a proper goodbye, the bizarre and often thoroughly illogical plot choices that betray well-established character traits, has burrowed its way into the skeleton and nothing can save it. Regardless, the ecstatic highs of Catching Fire seem like a distant memory. There is no fire here. There is only the smoldering remains of a once promising franchise.
This is the way The Hunger Games ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.