Katniss Everdeen becomes the face of a revolution in “Mockingjay — Part 1,” The film-makers have kept Collins’s best lines, allowing Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson, as Katniss’s two love rivals, to show off their genuine acting skills and Woody Harrelson and Philip Seymour Hoffman — orchestrating violence by means of propaganda — to make us chuckle.
For the millions who have read Collins’ bestselling trilogy and are awaiting this movie with an obsessive passion equal to that of the most extreme “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” fans (who also had to see their beloved franchises end on a maddening two-part note), the only real source of suspense here lies in the crucial question of where exactly Collins’ story has been cleaved in two. Rest assured, the decision has been made with near wisdom, allowing for just enough incident to sustain this relatively trim two-hour setup until its quasi-cliffhanger of an ending, while leaving several big twists to come in “Part 2” (due out Nov. 25, 2015), along with a presumably epic final showdown.
The story begins in rebellious District 13, whose commanders rescued Katniss from the Quarter Quell games at the end of the last film. Rioting has broken out in several districts and 13’s icy leader, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), wants Katniss to be the poster girl of the revolution. With no fight-to-the-death games in this episode Jennifer Lawrence’s bow and arrow take a back seat to her acting.
Over in the Capitol, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is having poor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) tortured. For a franchise with bang-on casting, the chemistry between Katniss and Peeta has always been a bit limp, so there are no complaints here about keeping them apart. Besides, Katniss has the infinitely less lame Gale (Liam Hemsworth) to take hunting.
Like the novel, the screenplay capably conjoins elements of political thriller, combat movie and mass-media satire, weaving a dense network of unsteady alliances, secret conspiracies, ratings-minded power plays and the entanglements of love and war. An early sequence finds Katniss stumbling through what remains of her home village of District 12, which Snow’s forces reduced to rubble in the wake of her escape from the arena.
Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), whose expanded role here represents the film’s most significant deviation from the novel. Their attempts to turn the initially stiff, camera-shy Katniss into a poster girl for the rebellion provide some gentle amusement, until Haymitch realizes that this Mockingjay can’t be trained to perform on cue: It’s only after she sees Capitol planes bomb a crowded District 8 hospital that Katniss’ guilt and devastation spur her into a moment of fury. “If we burn, you burn with us,” she tells her enemies in no uncertain terms, coining what will become a mantra for the revolution, as dramatized in stirring, sweepingly effective sequences of the other districts rising up and causing untold damage to the Capitol.
If Katniss remains only intermittently comfortable with her celebrity, Jennifer Lawrence herself feels like more of a natural than ever. Although she has less to do on the action front (she fires only one arrow, and it’s a doozy), her Katniss remains the most compellingly human fixture of this dystopian landscape, even when the psychological toll of her sufferings push the performance into a more desperate emotional register than before. Some of that is due not only to Katniss’ feelings for Peeta, but also to her concern for her loving but weak-willed mother (Paula Malcomson) and especially her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields, more prominent here than in the earlier films), laying the emotional groundwork for events still to come.
On that score, Moore’s Coin unsurprisingly emerges as the ensemble’s MVP, her steely intelligence and no-nonsense leadership marking her as yet another manifestation of the franchise’s refreshing gender politics, even as the film slyly encourages us not to judge her or her subordinates by the apparent righteousness of their cause. That power cannot help but corrupt is among Collins’ more potent themes (hinted at here in shots of a District 13 rally that can’t help but evoke “Triumph of the Will”), but one likely to be explored in greater depth — and ideally, with a freer hand — when “Mockingjay — Part 2″ arrives at this time next year.
MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 123 MIN.