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MOVIE REVIEW: From character study, social metaphor to straight-ahead action-thriller, ‘Divergent’ delivers

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Shailene Woodley stars as Beatrice Prior in 'Divergent.' (Special Photo: Summit Entertainment)

Divergent

(PG-13)

2.5 stars out of 4

With “Twilight” now a distant memory and the third “Hunger Games” installment not out until November, “Divergent” — the new kid on the scene — is charged with picking up the young-adult, ravenous fan slack and delivering yet another behemoth franchise.

Of those Big Three this adaptation is not only the most plausible, it is the best acted and the one most interested in finding an audience of people completely unfamiliar with the books. It’s not a classic by any stretch but blows away all of the “Twilight” flicks and gives “The Hunger Games” a run for the money.

Like “Hunger,” the lead character in “Divergent” is played by an Oscar-nominated actress known previously only for performances in thoughtful, critically acclaimed dramas that didn’t do real well at the box-office. If “Divergent” does even half the business of the last “Hunger Games” (and there’s no reason to think it won’t), it will immediately turn Shailene Woodley into a household name and possibly the next Jennifer Lawrence.

Set in Chicago sometime in the distant future, “Divergent” is rife with dystopian dread, an Orwellian air of paranoia and a society that is essentially divided into five distinct camps. Suggesting something along the lines of high-school cliques, there are the intellectuals (Erudite), the governor/givers (Abnegation), the truth tellers (Candor), the protectors (Dauntless) and the peaceful worker bees (Amity).

The secret sixth category, and a word few dare to speak is “divergent” — a person who has more than one or two talents, generally exhibits free will and is a huge threat to society’s equilibrium. Once discovered, divergents are usually executed. Tris (Woodley) is a divergent.

During a rite of passage ceremony that allows teens to chose their ultimate desired group, Tris goes against the wishes of her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) and signs up to be a protector, or Dauntless. She does this in part to keep her true identity a secret and the protector sect was the logical, but still less than ideal choice.

Not unlike a Marine facility or college frat house, the training program for the protectors is a series of physical and mental challenges that tests a particular candidates’ mettle to see if they’ve got what it takes. The program also includes lots of taunting, brow-beating, alpha dog power-flexing and lose-lose scenario role-playing. After a shaky start, Tris makes the final cut.

This is by far the most interesting portion of the film but at over an hour probably goes on too long. Throughout this section, the narrative builds up the often testy relationship building between Tris and the hunky Four (Theo James), one of the instructors who has more than a couple secrets of his own.

In retrospect, “Divergent” is constructed in much same manner as “Full Metal Jacket.” The first half trains the fighters and the second shows them in battle. There are also bits and pieces of dozens of other war, sci-fi, disaster and high school movies included but for the majority of the core audience (14- to 35-year-old females), these references and borrowings will be completely unrecognizable.

The final 80 minutes includes a coup and grab for power that takes the film from being a character study and social metaphor into a straight-ahead action-thriller with few explosions but lots of gunfire and chase scenes. Some of it works, some doesn’t, but it gets the job done and never once do writers Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor allow the narrative to slip into “Twilight” grade melodrama or schmaltz or “Hunger Games” campiness.

What ultimately drags “Divergent” down and keeps it from being far better is its overlong (139 minute) running time. Certainly under pressure from the studio to deliver a “super size” movie, it’s a good guess that if given his way director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist,” “Limitless”) would have brought it down to 110 or so minutes. It probably won’t come as a much of a surprise to most to hear that Burger will not be directing either of the two planned sequels.

The best that can be said about it is that “Divergent” doesn’t embarrass itself, cause the uninitiated to cringe or laugh and will more than please the faithful throngs. (Summit Entertainment)