“Insurgent,” the second film in what’s now officially known as “The Divergent Series,” is much better than its predecessor. What was good before is still good: Swoony Shailene Woodley still stars as bad-ass heroine Tris, and she’s still flanked by a cotillion of cute boys – Ansel Elgort as her brother Caleb; Miles Teller as her frenemy Peter; Theo James as her mentor/boyfriend Four – as she struggles as a “divergent” in a post-apocalyptic Chicago that divides what’s left of humanity into five factions based on personality traits: Candor, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, and Abnegation. (Presumably nobody survived outside the walls of the city.)
This film picks up only a few days after “Divergent” ends. Tris and her cohorts have been holed up in peace-lovin’ Amity since Erudite leader Jeanine (a sheath-clad, frozen-faced Kate Winslet) ousted Abnegation and seized control of the city, mobilizing Dauntless meatheads as her private militia. Now, Jeanine has found a box hidden by Tris’s recently deceased mom (Ashley Judd) that purportedly contains a message from their society’s founders that will justify Jeanine’s dictatorial control, er, provide instructions for restoring order to their crumbling civilization. The problem: Only divergents can unlock the box, which means Tris and her gang must go on the run. (Wise-ass Peter and once-a-stiff-always-a-stiff Caleb break rank soon enough.)
What’s better in the sequel is the new sheriff at the helm. Bro director Neil Burger has been supplanted by Robert Schwentke (“Red,” “Flightplan”), whose flair for lean, layered action better suits the material. Freed from the mundanities of world-building that bogged down the first installment, “Insurgent” leaps into gear as soon as Tris lops off her mermaid tresses in the first few minutes – miraculously, she pulls off a totally cute pixie with garden shears – and it doesn’t let up from there. It’s just as well. We don’t want to dwell too long on the logic of this storyline, which is riddled with more holes than post-apocalyptic Swiss cheese. (Certain plot twists are like exercises in bad improv theater.)
Though she’ll always be an unlikely action star, Shailene seems more comfortable in her skin this time around. Stripped of any residual timidity, she’s awesomely fierce: a blur of fists, sinewy limbs, and flashing eyes when she tackles her enemies and climbs aboard the ever-lucky Four. If Schwentke gives us too many closeups of her tear-studded lashes and trembling lips – she’s saddled with quite the moral dilemma halfway through – who can blame him? Few can resist the mysterious allure of Ms. Woodley. With Jeanine’s rat-a-tat-tat delivery and killer heels, Winslet radiates enough sinister glamour to match that star power, too. She’s a Joan Crawford-style villain, if awfully dense for a woman who’s supposedly the smartest person in town.
Women rule the school in “Insurgent.” In addition to nefarious Jeanine, we are introduced to Octavia Spencer as Amity leader Johanna and Naomi Watts as Evelyn, a raven-haired, morally ambiguous steam-punk queen of the Factionless. Both actresses bring a welcome depth to their cursorily sketched characters, especially Spencer, who, with a visible scar and a sad, unwavering gaze, conveys in short form that she’s an earth mommy by choice rather than destiny. She makes her Yoda-meets-Oprah speeches credible, too. Almost.
Depending on how we look at it, the worst shortcoming of “Insurgent” also may be a terrific selling point: It’s unintentionally hilarious. With the exception of class clown Miles Teller, the younger protagonists are so self-serious they can seem like “Zoolander” extras doing an Obsession commercial. The sudden ubiquity of YA blockbusters gives cause for amusement as well, though that’s hardly this individual film’s fault: a flurry of dark birds had me fantasizing the Mockingjay herself, Katniss of “The Hunger Games,” would save the day, and it’s both funny and discombobulating that Woodley has played the love interest of Elgort, James, and Teller over the last three years. (Her chemistry was so much better with Elgort that I wanted to scream: Dump Four! Date your brother!)
Throw in the pop psychology that is this film’s deus ex machina – action heroine, heal thyself – and those not squirming will probably howl with laughter at some point. What rescues us is pure adrenalin and pure beauty: In addition to the comely stars, each faction is gorgeously delineated (art director Alan Hook, costume designer Louise Mingenbach, and cinematographer Florian Ballhaus are to be commended) and each fight sequence is elegantly choreographed. As far as Hollywood blockbusters go, that’s a combination to break the bank. The fact that “Insurgent” qualifies as high camp only means that, in years to come, it’s likely to be heralded as a classic, as well.
This was originally published in Word and Film.