When superhero franchises falter, studios often reboot them, starting over from a different perspective with a different cast. What’s happened with “The Divergent Series: Insurgent” is less drastic but similar: A successful series has kept its cast but been revamped in the middle of its run.
That run began with “Divergent,” director Neil Burger’s respectful but tepid version of the first book in Veronica Roth’s hugely successful YA trilogy about a dystopian future where only teenagers in love have the moxie to challenge the establishment and reconstitute the world.
Returning for the second film are Shailene Woodley and Theo James, expertly cast as Tris and Four, the trilogy’s indispensable couple. But director Burger has been replaced by Robert Schwentke, and he has changed almost everything else.
Gone are “Divergent’s” pair of screenwriters, who stuck closely to the original book. In their place, a new trio (Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback) has done serious surgery to “Insurgent,” streamlining the story line, changing key plot points, inventing critical elements and in general improving the narrative flow.
Though he did the romantic “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” Schwentke is best-known for the geriatric secret agent movie “RED,” and he’s brought with him to “Insurgent” the key visual members of his “RED” team, including cinematographer Florian Ballhaus, production designer Alex Hammond and second unit director and visual effects supervisor James Madigan.
Together they’ve made “Insurgent” into less of a youthful romance and more of an action-heavy science fiction story, the kind of rat-a-tat tale that used to star grown-ups before teens ruled the box office. The result — though admittedly it’s a low bar to clear — is a more effective, adult-friendly film than its predecessor.
In case you’re new to the series, or have just plain forgotten, “Insurgent” is set inside a future post-apocalypse Chicago, where a new society has been formed by using personality traits to divide individuals into factions named Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. Those who fit nowhere, like our Tris, are Divergent and much feared.
The last film ended with Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the ruthless leader of Erudite, masterminding a plan to take control of society by murdering all the Abnegation individuals. Tris and her allies are blamed, and the new film opens with them on the run.
The group, which includes snarky Peter (Miles Teller), takes refuge with the kindly Amity folks, led by Johanna (Octavia Spencer). This faction is so genial the food servers tell everyone to “Go with happiness,” making the whole place seem like a very large branch of the Cafe Gratitude franchise.
Haunted by nightmares and guilt-ridden about deaths she feels responsible for, Tris impulsively cuts off her hair, giving herself a Jean Seberg look in preparation for the Joan of Arc-type battles that are to come.
For though “Insurgent” can’t quite do without its pro forma personal moments between characters (the film even includes a sex scene so chaste it wouldn’t have disturbed Doris Day in her prime), its heart is not there but in its action sequences.
Crisply conceived of and executed by Schwentke and his team of “RED” veterans, these scenes are nothing if not traditional B-movie material. Tris and friends are chased through the forest by bad guys like partisans being pursued by Nazis, attack squads deftly rappel down high walls, and a brutal fight erupts on a wide-open railroad boxcar with heads dangling dangerously close to moving rails.
But when those familiar exploits are combined with the rejiggered aspects of “Insurgent’s” plot, effective pulp storytelling is the surprising result.
For one thing, it turns out that Four’s mother, Evelyn, kind of like Hiccup’s mother Valka in “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” is not dead but merely gone. As played by the protean Naomi Watts, Evelyn reemerges as the leader of a powerful group of outcasts called the Factionless. Evelyn wants Jeanine dead but Four, who has issues with his mother (who doesn’t in these films?), is not sure she can be trusted.
Meanwhile, since evil never sleeps, nefarious Jeanine has plans of her own. She has come into the possession of an ancient and mysterious pentagon (not in the book), which she assumes is some kind of weapon system that will help keep her in power. The only trouble is, no one but a Divergent can figure out how to crack the code and open it up.
A key part of “Insurgent’s” plot is a disturbing series of SIMs, or simulations, that Tris has to survive. More elaborate than the ones in the book — and created by a combination of live-action stunts and post-production wizardry — they are more fun to watch than to read about, which, come to think of it, is the secret of this film’s success.
‘The Divergent Series: Insurgent’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: In general release