The highly anticipated adaptation of Suzanne Collins' second "Hunger Games" trilogy, "Catching Fire" adheres to the book more closely this time than the first film. For fans, it shouldn't disappoint, as the movie maintains momentum and fleshes out thecadre of memorable characters. For those who didn't read the book, you can catch on easily, and the suspense builds effectively.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) must embark on a Victor's Tour of the districts with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), but dastardly President Snow (Donald Sutherland) senses a rebellion might be brewing. To make sure she isn't turned into a martyr, Snow hatches a plan for the next "Hunger Games" to bring back past champions. Think of it as "Survivor All-Stars."
Well, this does add a new wrinkle, and Katniss just can't be sure who she can trust. The opportunities for double-cross, and the suspicions that arise, raise the stakes, and also set up the next two film adaptations of the third and final book, "Mockingjay."
Jennifer Lawrence is absolutely mesmerizing again as the courageous, vulnerable, and stubborn Katniss, a reluctant heroine whose love of family and sense of duty force her into a leadership role. This time, her heavy Cleopatra-inspired makeup and hair, while on show or in the Capitol, take a little getting used to, but she wears the role well -- especially the fiery garments on stage.
Her confidence as Katniss is appealing. This time, she's haunted by what she had to do to win, and those struggles add depth. Lawrence works well with the cast, most of whom returned from the first film.
Philip Seymour Hoffman's arrival as Plutarch is a stroke of genius, and Donald Sutherland is sublime, repeating his role as the slippery evil ruler, so having them as the villains raises the bar considerably.
Josh Hutcherson's stronger this time around as Peeta, and hunky Liam Hemsworth has more screen time as Katniss' love interest Gale. Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks are fun to watch as Caesar and Effie, two of the most over-the-top characters in all of literature. Sam Claflin ("Snow White and the Huntsman") is strong as the handsome Finnick.
With new director Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend"), the intensity and suspense keep one riveted, while the cast remains compelling. Because of the futuristic science fiction genre, the production values alternate between gut-wrenching grim and dazzling opulence, with the Capitol a grotesque takeoff on the Roman Empire. The 75th annual Hunger Games setting bears resemblance to a "Lost" episode (well, they did film scenes in "Hawaii"), and the danger has really been ramped up.
What Doesn't Work
Some of the action during the Hunger Games is hard to see because the screen is so dark. There are times where you feel you are missing something because of that aspect. The super-baboon creatures are terrifying but that scene could have been trimmed considerably, going on much too long. The film is long enough.
The ending does whet one's appetite for the third (but not final) installment -- they split "Mockingjay" into two parts, same director as this one.
3 stars out of 4
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Lenny Kravitz
Director: Francis Lawrence
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.