When Jennifer Lawrence appeared in the first Hunger Games film back in 2012, she was a rising young actress who'd made her name in indie films like Winter's Bone but wasn't all that well known. Now she's an Oscar-winner, and one of the most famous women on the planet. She certainly seems to have a knack for picking decent projects, because Hunger Games is a lot less dumb than most of these fantasy franchises.
Based on the novels of Suzanne Collins, the film series is set in a futuristic world where a dictatorial nation called Panem has arisen from the ashes of the United States. All power is concentrated in the ultramodern Capitol, and the outlying districts are dirt poor and ruled with a rod of iron. After a bloody but unsuccessful uprising 70 or so years previously, the rulers initiated an annual 'Hunger Games', in which contestants aged between 12 and 18 are chosen randomly from each district to take part in a gladiatorial contest to the death. The last one standing wins, and the televised games are compulsory viewing for the great unwashed.
Ms Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl from the backwoods of District 12 who surprised the Games' glib organisers by excelling in the deadly contest, then refused to kill her last competitor, thus becoming a potentially powerful star. In last year's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire she did it all over again, returning to the Capitol for another Games and becoming the rebellious inspiration for a simmering uprising against the cruel and corrupt President Snow (Donald Sutherland). And as this third and penultimate instalment opens, Katniss awakens in a strange place and is still traumatised by her experiences.
She's been taken in by an underground resistance movement led by the steely President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). She and her advisor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) want Katniss to become the talisman of a popular uprising that's spreading fast through the Districts, but she's initially reluctant. She doesn't know what's happened to Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and doesn't believe the leaders when they tell her District 12 has been destroyed. But when she sees with her own eyes the slaughter President Snow has inflicted on her home, she decides to join the rebellion.
This initially involves more pouting than fighting, as Plutarch enlists Katniss's old friend Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) to prepare her for a series of broadcasts. Wearing a splendid new outfit, the 'mockingjay', as she's now popularly known, is put before a studio camera to make rousing speeches that will be covertly disseminated. But Katniss is no fake, and flounders in the spotlight.
So Plutarch and co decide to send her to the front, and film her fighting instead. It works, but meanwhile Peeta is doing some broadcasts of his own, appearing on the Capitol's TV station denouncing Katniss and the rebels.
Mockingjay - Part 1 is radically different in tone from the previous films, by necessity, as Katniss has killed the Hunger Games for good. Instead of cat and mouse jungle battles, we get the slow, building drama of Ms Everdeen gradually realising her power and importance as the Capitol does its best to stop her. A very fine cast makes all of this very watchable, moving and funny, and Jennifer Lawrence brings depths of feeling and emotion to her performance that may have been absent in the screenplay.
But it all drags a little towards the end, and not surprisingly, because Lionsgate and co decided to split the third of Suzanne Collins' novels into two, two-hour films. It's hard to blame them: why gross $800million when you could double it? But there's a consequence, and Hunger Games 3 isn't as good as it might have been. (12A, 123mins)