The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The odds were definitely not in this sequel's favor.
Fans of Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" trilogy largely felt (I wasn't alone) that the first film landed somewhat feebly into the arena of teen action fantasy, undermined by Gary Ross' feckless direction and a script without bite. An anticlimactic first chapter isn't unique to this franchise - witness Christopher Columbus' uninspired first few takes on Harry Potter - and yet, entering an early screening for "Catching Fire" I was expecting more of the same.
Not so; director Francis Lawrence and co-writer Simon Beaufoy amp up Collins' second novel in spades, delivering a shockingly good, action-packed thriller with a pounding undercurrent of malice. So far, it stands as the movie to beat this holiday season.
When last we left Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are on their way back to District 12 after jointly winning the 74th Hunger Games. If you need a primer, that's the televised contest in which 24 teenagers from 12 "have not" districts in a future dystopian United States called "Pamem" are thrown into an arena and fight to the death. All is not rosy in their world, however. Aside from the fact that their on-screen romance was a strategic concoction (think "showmance") that now haunts Katniss' relationship with Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), the victors are forced by wily President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the cronies from the rich Capitol onto a train for their "Victory Tour."
It feels a little hollow to the two, mostly because they had to kill their way to the podium.
The Tour is critical to keep peace, as rebellion is brewing and Katniss has become a symbol for resistance - and Snow is determined to snip the wings of this mockingjay. He and new gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) hatch a plan for the 75th games: throw Katniss and the rest of the previous victors back into the ring.
Lawrence really delivers as a wiser, slightly more vicious Katniss; even when she's kissing guys or despairing over her lot, the character enjoys a steelier edge that holds up against the bigger budget look of the film. Not so much Hutcherson, whose wooden expressions still have us wondering what Katniss sees in Peeta. Hemsworth is slightly better, but he's got a smaller part working against him.
Sutherland finally gets sufficient screen time to deliver a nuanced, seething malice; and with the understated, menacing Hoffman at his side, the heroes of the film this time stack up against potent adversaries. The other members of the returning cast likewise step up their games: Woody Harrelson's Haymitch is delightful, Stanley Tucci's Caesar Flickerman is conflicted, Lenny Kravitz' Cinna simmers, and even Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket throws over her hyper-colorful, vacuous ways for some real depth of character. Additional newcomers - largely in the form of tributes for the games - include highly entertaining brainiacs from Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer and a finger-flipping, mouthy, disagreeable discontent from Jena Malone. And where did hunky Sam Cliflin come from? He wasn't impressive in his last big outing - "Snow White and the Huntsman" - but he sure turns on the juice as tribute Finnick.
All well and good, but without the hefty skills of director Lawrence, "Catching Fire" might have been snuffed out. True, Lionsgate pumped serious cash into this sequel - almost double that of the first film - but it had much to overcome. After all, Collins' second book works as a bridge between the shock gimmick of her first and the serious upheaval of the third, now being filmed in two parts; as such, it's largely unimpressive, the games feeling more of a "what, this again?" device. But Lawrence manages to keep the pace up while injecting budget judiciously - the Capitol looks lusher and more expansive, the games more suspenseful, the outlying districts more colorless and depraved. It doesn't feel as if Katniss and Peeta are merely being thrown back to the wolves (or monkeys, as it were); it feels as if there's an all-out war for the country being fought between an establishment that thrives on oppression and a single girl who has inadvertently fired up the populace - and the games are a vicious wrestling match for control.