Sharp as a flaming arrow and as explosive as when one hits a powderkeg, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is the rousing, thought-provoking action epic the first movie failed to be.
Give the credit to star Jennifer Lawrence, an Oscar under her belt and determined to show her mettle, and director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who provides the pacing and the gravity the series needs as novelist Suzanne Collins' series grows into an epic drama set in a world on the brink of revolution.
That potential for revolution was sparked in the first film, when Katniss Everdeen (played by Miss Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), from Panem's poor mining region District 12, were the upset victors of the 74th Hunger Games and defied the rules by surviving the kill-or-be-killed televised spectacle as co-champions. And it's that spark that President Snow (Donald Sutherland) wants snuffed out.
First, Snow threatens Katniss' family and her true love, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), if she doesn't play along with the official story line that she and Peeta are actually lovers. Katniss and Peeta try to keep up the pretense during a post-games tour of the districts, but the public protests get louder and harder to quell. Snow decides Katniss must be eliminated.
Not so fast, suggests Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the newly installed game master and easily the movie's most fascinating new character. Heavensbee's idea comes right out of the reality-TV playbook: an all-star edition, with Katniss, Peeta and other past victors returning for another run through the deadly game. If the public sees Katniss betraying her allies in the arena, Heavensbee tells Snow, "they're gonna hate her so much they just might kill her for you."
Katniss and Peeta again have their friends outside the game: boozy former victor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), plastic-haired image consultant Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the soulful fashion designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). In the ring, the District 12 stars find new allies in the muscular Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), ax-swinging Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) and the tech-savvy Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer).
With a screenplay that passed from Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire") through Michael Arndt ("Toy Story 3," but taking a pseudonym here), the director Lawrence ("I Am Legend," "Water for Elephants") builds up the emotional drama in the first half. Once Katniss & Co. hit the arena, he delivers strong action sequences, which are more crisp and coherent than the stomach-turning handheld work director Gary Ross employed in the first film.
More than in the first film, Jennifer Lawrence holds "Catching Fire" together by delivering Katniss' many moods: post-traumatic shock, steely determination, romantic confusion and burning defiance. Her Katniss has to keep us involved, as she's the pivot for the movie's inconclusive ending, which sets us up for the two-part finale, "Mockingjay" (which Francis Lawrence also will direct, for release in 2014 and 2015). As long as the two Lawrences stay on target, as they do in "Catching Fire," their end product could set the world on fire.
'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
The second chapter in Suzanne Collins' dystopian series is a bold improvement on the first movie.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.
Running time • 146 minutes.