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Final ‘Mockingjay’ is the best ‘Hunger Games’ film of them all: 3 stars

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) embarks on her final battle against the Capitol.
Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) embarks on her final battle against the Capitol. Lionsgate

It’s possible to forget how dark the “Hunger Games” really is. In the outside world, Suzanne Collins’ dystopian epic is a merchandising machine and the inspiration for a running Stephen Colbert gag.

But when you sit down with the books or movies, you’re immediately reminded that this series puts the “adult” in “young adult.”

“Mockingjay — Part 2,” the fourth installment in the movie franchise, wraps up the story in spectacular, deeply satisfying fashion. With the uprising against the Capitol in full swing, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, always terrific) is trying to play her role as a propaganda tool, while remaining wary of the rebellion’s scheming leader, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore).

As she watches her friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) struggle with the torture he endured at enemy hands, Katniss decides it’s time to finish the war she helped start. Going rogue with her usual determination, she sets out to assassinate the monstrous President Snow (the marvelous Donald Sutherland).

Getting to Snow’s mansion is a scary, dangerous prospect, and returning director Francis Lawrence handles the action with skill, faltering only when he resorts to video-game-level CGI (I’m sure I played that sewer attack in “House of the Dead” once). But he also leaves time for quieter character moments, so the danger faced by Katniss and her allies carries emotional weight.

There’s some intellectual heft here, too. It’s not exactly Hannah Arendt (of “banality of evil” fame), but the script by Peter Craig and Danny Strong faces the troubling dilemmas of war head-on: Is there anyone you can trust? Are some lives worth more than others? Where is the line between necessity and barbarity? Who gets to decide?

Given current events, it may be uncomfortable to face those issues over your $10 popcorn, but that’s the beauty of fantasy blockbusters: they can tackle Big Ideas without completely bumming out the audience. There is still plenty of excitement and romance, and even a little humor (thanks, as usual, to Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch and Jena Malone’s Johanna). It’s enough to deflect some attention from the troubling themes.

They can’t be avoided for long, though, and its willingness to go there makes “Mockingjay — Part 2” more than just the best entry in the “Hunger Games” franchise. It’s one of the most thought-provoking dramas of the year, too.

Read Next

Find more of freelancer Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.

‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2’

Rated PG-13. Time: 2:17.

Coping with loss

Adding to the poignancy of the final “Hunger Games” is the appearance of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a drug overdose in February 2014 — with eight days of filming left on “Mockingjay 2.” The Oscar winner plays Plutarch, a Capitol schemer turned rebel leader.

“I would have liked his role to be larger,” director Francis Lawrence told USA Today.

In some cases, the character was simply dropped from group scenes. In others, a stunt double who had the same build was used.

But Hoffman had been rehearsing for one crucial scene, when Plutarch consoles Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) after she has lost so much. Instead, Plutarch’s words are conveyed in a letter read to Katniss by her mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson).

Said Jennifer Lawrence: “The letter scene, that was really nothing compared to what we had to deal with losing Phil.”

Sharon Hoffmann, shoffmann@kcstar.com

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