Chicago has never looked less toddlin’ than it does in Insurgent, the second of four planned movies to be pulled, taffylike, out of the hugely popular Veronica Roth trilogy. At one point our fierce yet humble dystopian world saver, Tris Prior, played by the fierce but humble franchise saver, Shailene Woodley, strolls beneath rusted bridges along the dried-up remains of the Chicago River. I knew that St. Patrick’s Day dye wasn’t safe!
I kid. I kid the post-apocalypse. It is no laughing matter, and very little in Insurgent, beyond Miles Teller’s and Ansel Elgort’s subtle covetousness of the leading male role taken by Theo James, is at all humorous. When Teller and Elgort signed on to Divergent, their careers held great promise. Since then they’ve both headlined various films of their own, Elgort co-starring with Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars and Teller, lately of Whiplash, acting opposite Woodley in The Spectacular Now. To see these guys in Insurgent, doing what they can largely by way of a series of shifty reaction shots, while the stars carry the ball, is to see probable professional envy put to crafty use.
From the spectacular now, we’ve landed once again in the miserable future and a world where everyone’s divided up into rigid subsocieties based on personality and temperament. It’s like a flash-mob remake of The Breakfast Club. Kate Winslet returns as the icy blond authority figure crucial to every dystopian young adult story. Martial law rules the day, and the characters played by Woodley, James, Elgort and Teller are on the run, wondering how to start the revolution as effectively as possible.
Winslet’s Jeanine needs a Divergent to unlock a mysterious box (not the Tesseract; that’s another story) containing a message from the founders of the “faction system” that has brought us to where we are now: Chicago, centuries hence, when things are rotten but there’s plenty of free parking. At last.
Director Robert Schwentke, who has made some entertaining hokum (Flightplan) and some duds (R.I.P.D.), proves simpatico with the increased levels of onscreen violence in this second installment of the Divergent series. A rooftop ambush sequence rates as more urgent and exciting than anything in the first picture, and although absolutely nothing original occurs in the storytelling, the chase scenarios and virtual-reality simulation scenes are plentiful and confidently realized.
Woodley’s Tris struggles with her guilt regarding the death of her parents; the consequences of her mad killing skills; and her love (doomed? not doomed?) for the daring young man with the flying tattoos, played by James. Woodley’s diffident, insolent air has an intriguing way of filling out the lungs of her character. Teller, whose presence you also appreciate, has the benefit of playing a two-faced weasel, established as such in the first movie. Naomi Watts shows up as the estranged insurrectionist mother of our heroine’s boyfriend.
Octavia Spencer gets a scene or two, too, portraying the benevolent leader of the peace-loving Amity faction. These early scenes are the only ones in Insurgent that are unintentionally funny; the way the agrarian, vaguely Amish compound’s laid out, far from the city, and the way these people are costumed, it resembles a summer stock barn theater rehearsing back-to-back productions of Plain and Fancy and Godspell.
To recap: The actors are more or less saving this franchise’s bacon. Insurgent is a tick or two livelier than the first one. Director Schwentke has already begun work on the forthcoming Allegiant: Part One, due next March.
Insurgent (PG-13): ★★★✩✩