It would be thoroughly disingenuous to claim that it's obvious in hindsight that dividing Mockingjay, the third and most least-satisfying book in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy, into two different movies was a bad idea. It was, of course, always obvious that it was a bad idea. But it's still nice to have proof of something one already knew, as we do in the form of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, a movie of limited intrinsic merit, and about which it's difficult to make any positive claim for its quality stronger than that it's definitely better than Mockingjay - Part 1.

The simple, but incomplete, explanation for this is that, unlike Part 1, things happen in this film. Picking up, roughly, later in the afternoon of the final scene in the last movie, there's not a scrap of recap as we plunge into the grim militaristic bunkers of District 13, where the transparently untrustworthy Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) plots how best to use the increasingly resentful Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as a propaganda tool. Katniss has other plans - her only real goal in life at this point is to assassinate the unspeakably vile dictator President Snow (Donald Sutherland) - so she endeavors to sneak away to the frontlines where the rebel forces' battle the Capitol loyalists in the streets of the Capitol itself. The furious Coin determines that the best way to turn this to her advantage is to saddle Katniss with an all-star team of rebel heroes, AKA characters we mostly already know and like, along with a film crew that will document the team's staged victories as they tarry safely behind the main fighting. For idiotic reasons, this team includes Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who has been brainwashed to want to murder Katniss. Obviously, the goal of staying away from the fighting ends in failure, and soon our heroes are dying piecemeal in the face of the elaborate, violent traps the Capitol has left strewn about the city streets.

This still leaves us with the basic problem that we have a movie that's nothing but rising action until it finally starts to engage with the narrative again in the last quarter. At which point it generally salvages the rushed ending of the Mockingjay book, and making the climactic execution feel more stately and thematically intentional. It's a damn pity that the themes being called upon in this scene were all explored in the last movie, but it's obviously the case that we're supposed to think of the two Mockingjays as one big movie; it just happens to be one big movie that's terribly-paced and 90 minutes too long. Still and all, Mockingjay 2 backloads all of its best material, both as a political story and as a work of character drama, so it's possible to leave the film feeling mostly kindly towards it (though it does very much drop the ball on the epilogue, turning it into a poorly-blocked conversation between mother and infant).

Anyway, the thing that really propels this movie above its immediate predecessor is that most of the people we see onscreen are in much better form than they were the last time around: Moore is a conspicuous exception. And it's a damned pity that the story necessarily sidelines most of its best players - Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his final, incomplete performance) all put in what amount to cameos, and Jena Malone hardly fares better - but they're all in good form for the fragments of time we see them. It's great to see Lawrence doing some proper acting again in a Hunger Game, carrying around a shroud of morally outraged fatigue that's miles better than any of the sullen annoyance she conjured up in the repetitive, overly domesticated material that made up the last film. Sutherland is an outright revelation: in all of these films, he's been a perfectly suitable villain, owing largely to his native ability to make everything sound insinuating and sleazy, but here he turns things up to Full Ham, snarling and spitting like a cobra and obviously relishing every moment to portray a thoroughly smug monster of narcissism. Impressively, this doesn't even slightly knock the pins out from under the deeply serious ending.

For that, credit must go to director Francis Lawrence, who like his unrelated star benefits considerably from the opened-up canvas that Mockingjay 2's more action-oriented plot provides. His best skill, demonstrated to considerable effect in I Am Legend and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is to dig into the psychologically wearying effects of living in a crapped-out world, and the battle-scarred Capitol, designed with maximum ruined gaudiness by Philip Messina, who has stuck by the franchise since the very start, provide a great arena for that impulse . As Mockingjay 2 piles up more and more outrages against Katniss and turns bleaker and bleaker, F. Lawrence and J. Lawrence working together to create a suitable grim portrayal of the strain of continuing because one must, even when the accumulation of trauma is entirely too much to bear. And this, too helps give the final scenes - especially the franchise's key moment of emotional catharsis, involving a cat - weight that I, personally, found nowhere in the book.

All of that being nice and thoughtfully wretched, virtually everything that's worth tackling in Mockingjay 2 happens in the last 30 minutes of the movie. Leading up to that, it's nothing but Mockingjay 1's equally dreary twin: all movement instead of all stasis, no intellectual context instead of so much context you can choke on it. The obvious superiority of the theoretical one-feature version of this story is enough to make one weep, but let us hope and pray that the fan editors will take care of that for us. In the meantime, Mockingjay 2 is just a lot of busy running and screaming and dying courtesy of visual effects that are deeply far removed from anything like the state of the art, with all the characters beyond Katniss and the deeply bland Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth, one of the only significant actors in the anglosphere who can make Hutcherson look charismatic) functioning mostly as an amorphous blob of unhappy humanity. It is, against my expectations, an improvement on the book, but it's still a pretty lumpy and corrupted finale to a franchise that never rose above "pretty darn good", but deserved to end with more dignity and intelligence than this.

Reviews in this series
The Hunger Games (Ross, 2012)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lawrence, 2013)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (Lawrence, 2014)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (Lawrence, 2015)