JLaw acts her keister off in ‘Mockingjay’

The latest chapter in the Katniss Everdeen saga is, by necessity, a very different movie from the first two installments. But much of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” is so bleak, it makes the days when the blockbuster franchise was just about teens and tweens forced to slaughter each other seem positively carefree.

Compared to the damaged heroine of “Mockingjay,” the young stone-faced girl who initially volunteered as a tribute to save her sister feels more likely to have spent her days dancing about in her pajamas to a Taylor Swift song.

When “Mockingjay” opens, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is hundreds of feet below ground in what’s left of District 13, the militaristic zone that was long thought destroyed. As a result of her actions in The Quarter Quell, her homeland was leveled, but not before Gale (Liam Hemsworth) could evacuate her mother (Paula Malcomson) and sister (Willow Shields) to District 13’s bunkers.

Katniss, though, is more traumatized than ever, as she spends her nights dreaming nightmares. Thanks to her, an increasingly haunted looking Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is being held by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and made to denounce the rebellion in a series of sedate sit-downs with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, sadly dialing back his maniacal enthusiasm).

Allies Johanna (Jena Malone) and Annie (Stef Dawson) are also political prisoners in The Capitol. And the once brash Finnick (Sam Claflin) just wishes they were all dead.

There’s little time for Katniss to mope, though. Since The Quarter Quell, there have been riots and uprisings in more than half of the districts, But resistance leader Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore) need to act quickly to maintain their momentum. And who better to fan the flames of rebellion than The Girl on Fire?

Except for its final minutes, “Catching Fire” was a traditional sequel: similar plot, similar competition, similar flaming dresses, but everything from the battlefield to Effie’s hair was bigger.

Returning director Francis Lawrence and new screenwriters Peter Craig (“The Town”) and Danny Strong (HBO’s “Recount” and “Game Change”) are following novelist Suzanne Collins’ source material, but “Mockingjay” is a bird of a different feather.

The opulence of The Capitol, which often looked like “Project Runway” threw up all over it, has been replaced by the gray uniformity of District 13, with its high-waisted fatigues that are so unflattering, the fab-to-drab Effie (Elizabeth Banks) won’t even leave her bunk, lest she be seen in them. She clearly doesn’t want to be there, “condemned to this life of jumpsuits.” But when she finally emerges, de-wigged and do-ragged, to aid Katniss, her scenes play out like a must-see audition reel for the next season of “Orange Is the New Black.”

She and a strong-armed-into-sobriety Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) aren’t around much, but with “Mockingjay’s” bloodshed, public executions and scenes of Katniss walking atop the skeletons of her former neighbors, the two are a vital part of lightening the mental load. So are Plutarch’s comically awful attempts at having Katniss play a heroic leader for a campaign commercial.

The franchise’s greatest strength has always been the way its movies feel so much bigger than every other young adult series out there. Its producers easily could have made these on the cheap, and the results still would have been like printing money.

Instead, you get Oscar-winner Lawrence acting her keister off in every scene and some delightful bits of sparring between Hoffman and Moore, who have eight Oscar nominations and one win between them. (Sadly, at least a couple of those scenes were likely left unfilmed as a result of Hoffman’s untimely death.)

Unfortunately, those same producers refused to buck the trend, begun with the “Harry Potter” series, of dividing the final novel into two movies. “Mockingjay” isn’t the padded slog of, say, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1.” But the first two “Hunger Games” movies were at least 20 minutes longer yet felt much tighter.

Given that there’s a rebellion afoot, there’s surprisingly little action in “Mockingjay,” which mostly entails punk-chic director Cressida (Natalie Dormer, “Game of Thrones”) filming Katniss in a series of propaganda pieces. By my recollection, the expert archer only fires off a single arrow.

Considering the restrictions of only telling half a story, though, “Mockingjay” is as every bit as good as could be expected.

But it’s closer to being force fed your veggies than delighting in the rich, fulfilling, need-to-unbuckle-your-pants dessert fans will be hungering for in next year’s finale.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.

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