3.5 / 5 stars
For all you Hunger Games fans, let’s cut to the chase: Catching Fire, the second episode in the four-part adaptation of the book series, is superior to its predecessor in just about every way. Sure, it faithfully aligns with the book and safely plays to the franchise’s core audience. But this sequel is better cast, well-wound and powerfully paced. Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) aims his sights at a broader action-adventure audience with an uptick of intensity, improving on the surprisingly tame approach Gary Ross took with the first film, which catered to a younger group of head-nodding Hunger fans. Catching Fire still relies on the simplest of storytelling fundamentals — don’t expect anything meaty from the political and romantic themes — but the action has smarts and speed. And the film series has some newfound promise. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
In case any newbies are wondering, yes, you’ll be completely lost if your Hunger Games indoctrination begins with Catching Fire. But that’s as it should be. The quick start is a fair gift to loyal fans who deserve not to sit through some cursory recap (and it’s a firm strategy that forces newcomers to check out the first film.) If you do insist on leaping ahead, here’s the scoop: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark (meteoric star Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson), recent winners of an annual, state-sponsored battle to the death, witness the early makings of a worker uprising as they travel the nation on their victory tour. The sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland) needs a plan to squelch trouble, and calls on his trusted companion (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to devise a new Hunger Games that will stomp on the proletariat pride like Khrushchev’s shoe on a bug.
Our heroes end up back in the arena, of course, and this one’s a treat. The stilted anticipation manufactured in the first movie (saved by Lawrence’s frightened desperation) is ditched for a quick plunge to the game surface where confusion rules the first minute. There’s a blinding sun and disorienting surroundings – with her senses smudged, our heroine can barely catch her breath and neither can we. By the time the opening horn sounds, the excitement is palpable, accomplished with more efficiency and less fanfare than the original Hunger Games.
Lawrence understands the power of tempo. Measure quick surprises — not shocks, surprises — with well-timed suspense and you have a balance that keeps everybody on their toes. While in the midst of the games, we see most of author Suzanne Collins’ threats come to life; none are remarkably creative (beware the vicious primates!), but all contribute to the sense of doom. As alliances form, including newly added players Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone, the action gains a touch of gravity in which combatants are pitted against the all-controlling game makers instead of one another, a microcosm of the oppressive conditions outside the arena.
That’s about as thought-provoking as it gets, and that’s okay. Complementing the brisk pace and compact script by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3), director Lawrence lets star Jennifer Lawrence bring any real emotion to Catching Fire, shooting her in closeup and letting her do the work. It’s important because the cast interpretations range from flat (Lenny Kravitz, I still don’t get it) to goofy (Stanley Tucci as TV host Caesar Flickerman) to quietly evil (Hoffman, far more skilled than many here). As Katniss, Lawrence shows she can legitimately carry a film’s weight when the part’s right.
Is Catching Fire the cliffhanger that the book is? You’ll have to find out. And many of you will, if the first film’s popularity is any indication ($690 million at the worldwide box office). Funny that a story about the helpless huddled masses is adored and embraced by a blindly loyal following. It’s not the first time. But for this go-round, it’s worth it.