There's a lot riding on this one, but the odds are stacked in its favour. It's hard to overestimate the impact of the Hunger Games film franchise.
Adapted from Suzanne Collins' trilogy of YA novels, the three movies thus far have grossed more than $2bn at the worldwide box office, and helped make a megastar of Jennifer Lawrence. Her Katniss Everdeen – resourceful, independent hunter-survivor – shines a light on the dearth of great female leads in modern action blockbusters. So it's a relief that, as a saga-closer, Mockingjay – Part 2 hits the target.
It's a noticeable improvement on last year's draggy Part 1. Picking up with Katniss in rebel base District 13, where she's recovering from the attack by brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), it doesn't take long for boots to hit the ground and war to kick off. After spending the whole of the last film deliberating, Katniss is ready to take action against the Capitol. Claiming the head of President Snow (Donald Sutherland, deliciously despicable as ever) is at the top of her to-do list, even if that means defying the orders of the power-hungry leader of 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore).
While Collins ditched her own formula for the third book by leaving out any actual Games, Mockingjay – Part 2 more closely apes the structure of the first two films, with the booby-trapped Capitol making for an impressive ersatz arena as the action is televised and beamed to the masses. Screens are even illuminated with the day's 'kills', displayed along with the Games' trademark musical theme.
Torrents of tar, motion-sensitive machine guns and the freakiest mutts yet await Katniss and co as they make their way through the city to Snow’s palatial safehouse. The scale of the action is impressive, from the helijet bombings and the abandoned cityscapes, to the teeming crowds of extras.
That said, some of the most impressive set-pieces take place on a much smaller scale, the highlight being a particularly tense subterranean showdown, with director Francis Lawrence (who has been with the series since Catching Fire) ratcheting up the claustrophobia.
And while the special-effects budget is flaunted on the screen for all to see, there’s still time for the pointed satirical messages that have always separated the franchise from its more lightweight peers; Katniss sets off on her mission as the figurehead of the ‘Star Squad’, an elite team whose objective is to lag behind and film propaganda videos in relative safety. The cost of war – and its rules – is ruminated on frequently.
Trying to cram so much in to an action-heavy narrative does lead to some clunky moments and the dialogue can occasionally jar. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the majority of the supporting players get short shrift. The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Liam Hemsworth’s Gale might be nearing its conclusion, but it's as inconsequential to the overall story as it has ever been, meaning it’s hard to care all that much about its outcome.
With so many characters accumulated over the last three films, anyone outside of the central Katniss-Peeta-Gale triptych struggles to get a word in, limiting the emotional impact of some of the farewells. You might end up feeling that your particular favourite got shortchanged. Newcomers get even less to work with. Let’s hope Gwendoline Christie has a more substantial presence in Star Wars: The Force Awakens than her single scene here.
Thankfully, Jennifer Lawrence is predictably superb. At this point, you wouldn’t expect any less. The Oscar-winner once again imbues Katniss with an utterly convincing steeliness that’s offset by a subtly played vulnerability. It’s this performance that has been such a key hook for the series as a whole, and never more so than here. If there’s a poignancy that comes from knowing that she’ll (probably) never be seen on screen as the character again, that feeling is boosted by a couple of low-key moments for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final posthumous role.
To the series’ credit, the stakes feel genuinely high. It’s a welcome quality in a blockbuster landscape dominated by inconsequential CGI-smackdown climaxes. OK, so it’s hard not to see the decision to split the final book into two films as a cynical one – a single Mockingjay film might’ve made for a more urgent conclusion. But for anyone who has been keenly following the series, it’s impossible to see Part 2 as anything other than a satisfying ending.
Staying true to the source material and refusing to talk down to its audience (as well as once again pushing the 12A rating to its limits) this is assured and confident franchise filmmaking. After the dust has settled on this installment, its absence will be keenly felt. Let’s hope, like the Mockingjay, its legacy can continue to inspire.