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The caste and the furious Insurgent'

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Second installment a step backward for series

It goes without saying that these days, franchises foot the bill in Hollywood. Big-budget multi-movie extravaganzas are the current watchword and if they can be based on a preexisting pop cultural phenomenon, so much the better.

Which brings us to 'Insurgent,' the second movie based on the 'Divergent' series of dystopian YA fiction written by Veronica Roth.

(Note: Roth's series is a trilogy, so it probably comes as no surprise that the third book, 'Allegiant,' is scheduled to be made into two movies, because that's what you do to wring every last cent out of a property before casting it aside and frantically searching for the next big thing.)

A quick primer: we're in the future. Disaster has struck and civilization has largely collapsed. In a ruined city surrounded by a mysterious wall, a strictly regimented caste system has taken hold ostensibly to get society back on track. When young people come of age, they are sorted into one of five groups - Abnegation (marked by selflessness), Amity (peacefulness), Candor (truth), Dauntless (courage) and Erudite (intellect).

'Insurgent' finds our heroine Tris Pryor (Shailene Woodley, 'The Fault in Our Stars') on the run from the sinister and power-hungry forces of Erudite, led by the enigmatic Jeanine (Kate Winslet, 'A Little Chaos'). She along with her erstwhile boyfriend protector Four (Theo James, 'Divergent'), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort, 'Men, Women & Children') and unpleasant hanger-on Peter (Miles Teller, 'Whiplash') have been scapegoated for Jeanine's unwarranted attacks on other factions, due primarily to the fact that Tris is a Divergent (meaning possessed of attributes from multiple castes).

The group can hide for only so long, so Tris and the crew start making their way back into the depths of the city so that they might find a way to combat Jeanine's plan and avenge the death of Tris's parents. But they're wanted criminals, and it turns out that all of her allies have secrets secrets that make it almost impossible for her to know who to trust. In addition, Jeanine has found some kind of science-magic MacGuffin box that supposedly contains the secrets of the legendary Founders. Conveniently, only a true Divergent can open said box.

It's all leading to a confrontation that may shake the basic structure of their society to its very core. You know, like they do.

It's easy to be flippant when talking about a movie like 'Insurgent.' On the surface, there's nothing wrong with it it's perfectly passable entertainment. The stars are good looking and the effects are impressive and the story is interesting enough. When you actually sit down and watch the thing, it all feels underwhelming.

The whole point of films like this one is to lend a sense of epicness to the hero's journey. It's a fairly well-worn formula at this point; just take the basic structure of one or few railing against a broken system and then decorate it with whatever dystopia-of-the-moment details you like. Unfortunately, things never really gel; not even to the degree that they did in 'Divergent,' itself not a particularly well-oiled machine.

Woodley has talent, but in the inevitable comparisons to Jennifer Lawrence, she will always come in second. It isn't her fault, but it's an unavoidable truth. It doesn't help that she seems to have taken a bit of a step backward since the first film she just isn't as charismatic this time around. Meanwhile, the filmmakers are trying awfully hard to make James into a leading man, but at this point, it doesn't look like it's going to happen. He's basically a sentient set of abs that has been taught to brood.

The supporting cast doesn't fare much better. Blanchett misses an opportunity to embrace her inner villainy; while the part does call for a degree of reserve, there are still moments where she could gnaw on the scenery. She never does, leaving us once again with the impression of someone just waiting for her check to clear. Elgort is all sad eyes and awkwardness, while Teller looks less than thrilled to be forced back into his once-standard a-hole persona. The only one who really looks like they're having any fun at all is Jai Courtney ('Unbroken'), who spends every second of screen time at a delightfully unhinged full blast.

'Insurgent' seems to indicate that the studios are content to simply go through the genre motions with this one. Whatever promise was offered by the first film is largely gone, leaving the franchise to plod to the finish line.

[2 out of 5]

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