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Subdued 'Mockingjay' mostly a bridge to the finale

Tom Long
The Detroit News

There are no Hunger Games. There is no triumphant moment. All is frustration and indecision, inaction and waiting. There is very little fire of any kind.

All of which makes "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1" a more difficult and, in some ways, interesting movie than its predecessors. Based on the first half of the concluding novel of the "Hunger Games" trilogy — major liberties have been taken with story and characters — it's a bridge movie that offers no climactic conclusions yet raises major questions.

The biggest of which is, are there any truly good guys in war? Is there any winning? Oppression is clearly evil, but aren't victors inherently oppressors?

Asking, or at least thinking these questions is our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, terrific as always). She ended her second Hunger Games by destroying the game stadium itself, then was rescued and brought to safe haven in District 13, which turns out to be a militaristic society housed deep underground, just waiting to lash out at the ruling Capitol and its President Snow (the sublimely snakey Donald Sutherland).

Katniss' partner and possible love Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is held captive in the Capitol; indeed he's being brainwashed into spouting anti-rebel propaganda over the airwaves. Her hunting partner and possible love alternate, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), has taken refuge in District 13 and is adopting its soldierly demeanor.

Those in power — mainly District 13's icy President Coin (Julianne Moore) and retired gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — have a plan: They want to promote Katniss, already the symbol of rebellion, as the figurehead of a coming revolution.

Katniss mainly wants to get Peeta out of captivity. But she agrees to star in videos to bolster the growing fight. Problem is, Katniss loses all her spark and believability when she's just reading lines. So she is sent out with a camera crew led by film director Cressida (Natalie Dormer) to interact with troops on the ground in what turns out to be the film's one big action scene. Katniss, of course, sizzles when confronted with real action.

But again, real action isn't what this film's about (the final "Mockingjay," if it lives up to the book, should be downright breathless in comparison). It's about a confused and frightened young woman forced into situations, decisions and even bonds not of her own making. "The Hunger Games" greatest strength is that even though its protagonist is awfully good with an arrow and even an impassioned speech, she — like most teens if not most people — is generally unsure of herself romantically, politically and socially. She's just a kid.

"Mockingjay – Part 1" is substantially shorter than its predecessors at a little over two hours and fans of the novel will still note some padding. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) has a place at the table in District 13; and a mission to rescue Peeta which is fairly invisible in the novel here becomes a major action piece. Note to director Francis Lawrence: Major action pieces should always involve Katniss. Without her this looks like a "Mission: Impossible" outtake.

With all the question marks hovering and no defined ending, "Mockingjay – Part 1," however well done, can't compete with the first two films, although it sets up what should be its stunning ending well enough. It leaves Katniss confused, frustrated and in pain. Things have to improve, right?

TLong@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1'

GRADE: B-

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material

Running time: 123 minutes

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1" (PG-13) Shorter than its predecessors and mostly functioning as a bridge to the final film, this installment finds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) becoming the symbol for a rising revolution while pining for a missing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). (123 minutes) GRADE: B-