March 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: In 'Divergent,' another solid action franchise is born

'Divergent,' set in a future Chicago that is divided into factions, stars Shailene Woodley, left, as a trainee attracted to her trainer, Theo James. (Summit Entertainment)

“Divergent” works.

Is it any wonder? With strong themes of female empowerment and individualism mixed in with budding romance and a healthy helping of post-apocalyptic violence, it admittedly bears a more-than-passing resemblance to “The Hunger Games” franchise.

Toss in that both series wrestle with essential, thought-provoking social and political issues and it might seem as if “Divergent” is something of a copycat, at least in intent.

But director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”), working with screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, has shaped the first book of Veronica Roth’s trilogy into its own creature, similar enough to “The Hunger Games” to plow common ground, but also individual enough to be intriguing.

It’s hard to know if this franchise will work in the long run — the “Games” books get progressively stronger, the “Divergent” books not so much — but Burger has done well with this first entry.

Not that it’s perfect: There’s bit too much wild-in-the-streets hooting, the hallucination sequences are strong but numerous, a few characters are underdeveloped (which may hurt later), and there’s that too-standard virginal love thing. But fans of the book will likely be pleased. More importantly, people who don’t know a thing about the books may get swept up, as well.

Welcome to Chicago, sometime in a grim future. The city is in ruins, surrounded by a huge electric fence. Inside people have been divided into five factions — Candor (the honest ones), Erudite (the smart ones), Dauntless (the brave ones), Amity (the peaceful farmers) and Abnegation (the selfless ones). When kids turn 16, they are given a test that determines which faction they should join.

When Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) takes that test, it shows she qualifies for three different factions, which means she’s something frowned heavily on, a Divergent. Her tester (Maggie Q) warns her to tell no one.

Beatrice surprises everyone at her choosing ceremony by going with Dauntless, thus leaving behind her mother (Ashley Judd), father (Tony Goldwyn) and brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort). Now calling herself Tris, she essentially enters Dauntless boot camp.

There she meets the hardened Four (Theo James in a breakout role) and the heartless Eric (Jai Courtney), her instructors. Much of the film is taken up with the rigors and politics of the training sessions, which, along with physical combat, include a series of induced hallucinations in which trainees have to face their fears.

Along the way, Tris takes some serious bumps, but she also learns the Erudite, who are ruled by the icy Jeanine (Kate Winslet), plan to use the Dauntless to wipe out the Abnegation and take over the city. And she develops a romantic connection to Four.

All of this goes along with the book fairly well, but Burger and company have done some solid addition and subtraction. Jeanine is far more present in the film, offering a fine villain. A few bleak incidents have been excised.

Still, the film stands or falls with Woodley. The young actress, who gained fame in “The Descendants” and built cred with “The Spectacular Now,” is very much her own woman and makes Tris her own character. Comparisons with Jennifer Lawrence will be inevitable, but Woodley is a powerful natural talent who cannot be denied.

Will the age of the female action hero — Bullock in “Gravity,” Lawrence in “Games,” now Woodley — roll on? Or will “Divergent” be one more young adult, fantasy flop, would-be franchise (“These Mortal Instruments,” “Beautiful Creatures”)? At least “Divergent,” well-made with strong themes, has a fighting chance.

'Divergent'

GRADE: B

Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality

Running time: 139 minutes

tlong@detroitnews.com
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