The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.
Running time: 146 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

Here’s how effective “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is: I read the book it’s based on, I knew what was going to happen, yet still found myself getting caught up in the action, the suspense, the twists. And I still found myself sighing a longing “awww” at the flim’s cliffhanger ending, even though I knew it was coming. Director Francis Lawrence’s film runs nearly two-and-a-half hours but it concludes so abruptly and tantalizingly, it leaves you wanting more.

As the second film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling “Hunger Games” trilogy, “Catching Fire” is in the potentially awkward position of simultaneously serving as a placeholder and moving the action and characters along, of providing audiences with a substantive and satisfying ride while still teasing the climactic finale to come. And it achieves all this with both style and emotional heft, and only a tad bit of lagging or padding.

Taking over for Gary Ross, who directed last year’s original “Hunger Games,” Lawrence keeps the action buzzing briskly while also providing a clearer and more daunting sense of the totalitarian regime that has kept the citizens of dystopian, futuristic Panem cowering in poverty and fear. Images from the individual districts are gritty, bleak and sometimes gruesomely bloody, while the towering, Art Deco Capitol appears more awesomely over the top than ever thanks to improved special effects.

But as the title suggests, a spark has ignited among the people, and Katniss Everdeen is the one who lit it.

Once again, Jennifer Lawrence serves as the formidable force at the center of this strange and dangerous world. Her Katniss is fierce but vulnerable, mature beyond her years but accessible in her youthful vitality. By now, we know that Lawrence can do pretty much anything, from comedy and romance to drama and action. Fresh off her showy, Oscar-winning turn in “Silver Linings Playbook,” here she must function as a savior and symbol of hope, a responsibility her character initially is reluctant to accept.

At the end of “The Hunger Games,” Katniss and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, vaguely more assertive this time) have cheated the system and both emerged as champions. Now they’re forced to travel the ravaged country on a victory tour, an uncomfortable mix of propaganda-filled celebration and sorrowful remembrance of the fallen. At each stop, Katniss must pretend to be in love with Peeta to please the suspicious President Snow (a chilling Donald Sutherland), although her heart belongs back home with her hunky childhood best friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth, little-used aside from one powerful scene).

Along for the ride, as always, is the duo’s unflappably upbeat escort, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who strains to keep them on message even as revolution rears its head wherever they go. Banks once again gets to wear a colorful array of truly inspired and garish costumes, but she also gets to show some humanity and complex emotions, as her true loyalties to Katniss and Peeta begin to shine through. Also accompanying them is the last Hunger Games winner from District 12, the perpetually inebriated but resourceful Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, who’s also afforded more shadings this time in the script from Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt).

But just when they thought they were out, President Snow pulls Katniss and Peeta back in. For the 75th Hunger Games — the third Quarter Quell, as it’s known — he announces he’s assembling previous winners to fight each other to the death in the arena. His new gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), promises to make the competition more difficult than ever before since he’s dealing with more skilled players. Hoffman delivers a deadpan monologue in that deep, rich voice of his in which he lays out his strategy for the president; it’s simultaneously hilarious and frightening, and a great example of how excellent supporting casting helps elevate a film like this beyond the young-adult genre.

Along those lines, Stanley Tucci dazzles once more as the purple-pompadoured game show host who schmoozes the contestants and pumps up the audience. He’s wonderfully flamboyant (and a much-needed source of humor) but, again, he’s only a notch above the typical television personality in terms of perkiness. And Lenny Kravitz brings warmth and earthiness once more to the role of Cinna, Katniss’ stylist and confidant. (Real-life costume designer Trish Summerville truly outdoes herself this time, especially with Katniss’ glittering, transforming wedding dress. It’s a stunner of a moment on live TV for all the world to see.)

The prelude is so fraught, the games themselves almost feel like a relief by comparison, even though so many lives are at stake. Among the clever challenges that await these Hunger Games all-stars: poisonous fog, rampaging baboons and thick, bloody rain. The competitors’ realization as to how to outsmart the system is a great a-ha moment. But what all these alliances and schemes are in service of is the real zinger, and the promise of more dark thrills to come.

10 Comments on “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

  1.  by  Douglas Roy

    Just like the second film in the Hunger Games trilogy your exhilarating review captured the essence of what makes this film so note-worthy on so many levels be it the story, direction or the spot-on casting by those involved in this sci-fi franchise.
    Having only read the first book of the series I was not prepared for various dramatic underpinings that would catapult me into this dystopian drama on so many levels of engagement. My goal is now to read the third book in the trilogy MOCKING JAY so as to help aleviate some of the suspense of what happens next to these characters I’ve invested so much time with both on screen and off. Regretfully, the final book will be split into two filmed scenarios so as to squeeze as much financial gain as possible from this blockbuster series. It is my understanding that Francis Lawrence has been assigned once again the same duties to direct the finale of the Hunger Games series which was a good decision on Lionsgate’s part.

    •  by  Nandi

      Yes the ending is unexpected and not explained well.we as a viewer would love to stick to our chairs for 10 more mins .why shown so hurry to end the movie.Truly the ending wasted the chsrm of entire movie.

      •  by  Dengakuman

        I agree; I was really enjoying the film, and while it was a bit long I felt the final scene was so hectic I was a little confused as to what actually happened. It’s my only real complaint, and as a viewer, I was invested enough that I would have actually been happy to see more of it.

        •  by  Levi

          The reason the ending is abrupt and confusing is because that is the same way it happens in the books. It ends leaving you wanting more, wanting know what happened. If you want to be alleviated of your confusion you’ll either have to wait for the next film or read the final book. I thought the ending was great and true to the books.

      •  by  Clai

        so Right to this point. I felt up to the ending that it was perhaps the best movie I have seen in some time. However the ending left me with such a incomplete feeling, I felt that it would be my review to wait for the next movie before seeing this.

        Its great theater, but tot a great movie per say.

        •  by  Ernie_jena

          Great movie with 2 flaws in it. They should’ve shown the removal of the tracker by Johanna from Katniss and the captivity of Johanna and Peeta by the Capitol. This is a more important thing to show in a movie than just by saying it, i mean you’re watching a movie not reading a book.

  2.  by  Rush sangs

    Such a well written review. Truly awestruck by Mr. Roy’s words. Compels me to watch the movie with even more curiosity and impatience. Great review!!

    •  by  Ernie_jena

      Please people it’s a nice review BUT there is NO bloodrain scene in the movie only the result of it!!!You only see Johanna Mason covered in blood, that’s all. So Christy Lemire which version did you see then?

  3.  by  Rush sangs

    My apologies. **Christy lemire. I was looking at the comment instead of the review author 😛

  4.  by  Laken

    I love this movie, love ,drama and a lot of action it got a great review to 🙂