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.