Another year, another prime-time slaughter in the sad land of Panem. You'll recall that in the first Hunger Games movie, our spunky protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), outfoxed government game-runners to emerge victorious at the end of the annual rite. This should have exempted her from further participation in these bloody extravaganzas; but Panem's evil dictator, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), worried that Katniss was becoming a figurehead for mounting rebellion among his miserable subjects, has declared a special new edition of the Hunger Games that will pit past victors against one another in a new battle to the death. With any luck, he fervently hopes, Katniss will be among the corpses littering this year's arena.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is inevitably a rerun of the first film, to some extent—nearly two and a half hours of teen-bait action-romance. But it's a better movie. Well, in some ways. Once you get past wondering why the famously blonde Jennifer Lawrence has suddenly been given a dreadful flat-black dye job. And why the picture starts at a dead standstill and spends most of its first third trying to get moving. And why it then proceeds to go on so much longer than it has any right to.
Those who remember the first installment, however, will know that this one could have been much worse. But even though that picture grossed more than $680-million worldwide, the producers brought in a new creative team to punch things up. Their wisest hire was director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), who concentrates the story and whips it along as best he can—the movie sags in some stretches, but never breaks down completely. It's still a picture aimed at fans of Suzanne Collins' best-selling YA novels—and of Jennifer Lawrence, naturally—but even viewers dragged into it kicking and screaming are unlikely to be bored out of their minds. Well, not entirely.
Most of the key actors are back in harness: Elizabeth Banks as Katniss' fashion-victim chaperone, Effie Trinket; Woody Harrelson as her boozy coach, Haymitch Abernathy; and the great Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the government game-show host from Hell (with his blazing-white teeth and purple eyebrows, he's an icon of showbiz insincerity). And there are some welcome new additions, chief among them Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, the weaselly government Gamemaker ("Fun is my business!"). Hoffman has never met a written character he can't improve upon, and he devises shadings of carefully ambiguous charm for this one. Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) brings punkette energy to the role of axe-wielding contestant Johanna Mason; and Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer add a sweet emotional layer to the film as the brainiac contestants Beetee and Wiress, who discern a crucial flaw in Plutarch's insidious game design. Katniss is still saddled with mopey fake boyfriend Peeta Mellark (played by mopey Josh Hutcherson), but he's effectively crowded out this time by a more engaging hunk named Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin, of Snow White and the Huntsman).
The movie advances the Hunger Games story in serviceable fashion. Katniss and her partner Peeta are compelled by Snow to leave their grim coal-mining town and embark on a promotional tour of Panem's other heavily oppressed districts. Snow also forces them to continue posing as girlfriend-boyfriend ("Our two lethal lovers!" Flickerman crows during a TV appearance) to add bogus romance to the grisly government narrative. Their ultimate destination is the Capitol, where Katniss' stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), once again decks her out in about half a pound of mascara and familiar fiery gowns (one of which unwisely announces his own rebel sympathies). After meeting their fellow contestants ("I want them all dead!" Snow hisses to Plutarch), they're off to the arena—this time a hot, thick jungle arranged around a big lagoon with a Tilt-A-Whirl-style "cornucopia" of weapons at its center. The Games begin.
Plutarch and Snow watch via video feed as the contestants are assaulted and knocked off by an unrelenting series of perils—an attack by giant baboons being the most fearsome. Director Lawrence stages some of this with relative economy, and he's skillful in balancing the movie's action with quieter interludes of plot-pushing conversation and even some chaste PG-13 nuzzling. Things grow dark at the end, as you know they must – until Katniss pulls one last arrow from her apparently bottomless quiver.
The movie was partly shot with IMAX cameras for maximum widescreen impact, and you may be very happy to know that it's not in 3D. It is the middle installment of this story (the concluding chapter, profit-stretchingly broken into two films, will be released over the next two years), but it stands fairly well on its own. Apart from Sutherland—who I think murmurs too much to be convincing as a really rotten guy—the performers are generally well-suited to their roles, and seem to be having fun with them.
The picture is tricked out with an expected component of digital and animatronic enhancements. But its most special effect, once again, is Jennifer Lawrence. Her deep talent as an actor is barely called upon here, leaving her serene beauty to anchor the film. She's required only to glow, and she does. For a movie like this, it's enough.