"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" (PG-13) ***1/2 (out of four)
"The Hunger Games" saga soars to new heights with "Mockingjay, Part 1," a welcome departure from the duel to the death framework of the first two films that's every bit as exciting and intense as its predecessors. Featuring another ferocious performance by Jennifer Lawrence and impressive turns by her expanding slate of co-stars, there's no question the latest chapter – which is punctuated by another great cliffhanger ending – will leave fans desperate for the hotly anticipated final chapter of the series next year.
Lawrence stars again as Katniss Everdeen, the gifted archer and co-champion in the first "Hunger Games" whose lethal arrow in "Catching Fire" destroyed the iron-fisted Capitol's force field that kept constant watch over the districts in the oppressed country of Panem.
"Mockingjay – Part 1" picks up with Katniss in the rebellious underground District 13, which is led by President Alma Coin (the always wonderful Julianne Moore) and advised by former Hunger Games gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (a terrific Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles). With the districts in Panem no longer under the tight control of President Snow (a menacing Donald Sutherland), chaos has broken out in Panem's remaining districts.
District 13 – the only district with enough weaponry to overthrow the Capitol – wants to rein in rebels to join in the fight, but they're in lack of a symbol to unify them until the defiant Katniss is convinced to step into the role. Fuming over the genocide and destruction of her home of District 12, Katniss quickly becomes the rebellion's natural leader, yet remains weakened over the capture of three of her fellow Hunger Games tributes, including Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson).
Under the control of Snow, Peeta is clearly being coerced by the Capitol for propaganda purposes, and his pleas for so-called peace throws the rebellion into disarray every time he makes an appearance on state-run television. With Katniss' vulnerabilities starting to show and the rebels' faith wavering, Coin and Heavensbee know that the rebellion can only move forward if Peeta is rescued, and the window of opportunity is slim.
Moving on from the format of the first two films that featured individuals battling each other to the death, "Mockingjay - Part 1," which is more epic in scale than the first two films, first and foremost feels fresh. Now a tale of rebellion and inevitable war, the movie series seems to have a whole new sense of urgency now. The great thing is, "Mockingjay - Part 1" is as much about the psychological effects the battle has on Katniss and Peeta as the bullets, bombs and arrows – and ultimately, the fight to restore freedom to the people who have been living in fear.
Whether or not you've read the "Mockingjay" novel, there' no question that the story on film is a thrilling experience. Under the expert direction of Francis Lawrence, there's a building sense of tension and unpredictability through the film, especially as it enters its exhilarating final act. Even though he was a rushed hire for "Catching Fire" and the remainder of the series after the first film's director, Gary Ross, abruptly stepped aside, fans can rest comfortably knowing Lawrence's command over "Catching Fire" was no fluke.
While one can reasonably argue that the decision to stretch the "Mockingjay" into two parts is nothing but a money-grab by the studio (the two-film conclusion worked for "Harry Potter," but now every book-turned-movie series has without guilt fallen lock-step into the practice), there's really no reason for fans to feel exploited here. I can't help but think readers of the book series will embrace the exposition that they may have felt was lacking in the first two films, and the plot doesn't feel stretched or bloated in the least. The more and more the "Hunger Games" saga plays out, it's easy to see why the book series is such a page-turner – and the final chapter in the series can't come soon enough.
Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.