“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Sundance. PG-13, 2:26, three and a half stars out of four.
If you want a reminder of how well “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” does what it does, make sure to get to the theater early to see the trailers for all the other young-adult films trying to emulate it. One plucky teenage girl after another fulfilling her destiny against a dystopian future — where have we seen that before?
But both “Hunger Games” movies, based on Suzanne Collins’ novels, have made it work now, the second even more than the first (which had its detractors, but I liked a lot.) “Catching Fire” is a classic blockbuster sequel, offering more of the same, only bigger. But it also goes deeper, led by Jennifer Lawrence’s graceful and commanding performance as Katniss Everdeen, with a lot of good actors behind her. It also has a better director (Francis Lawrence taking over for Gary Ross) behind the camera, raising the emotional stakes, finding more humor as well as more sorrow in the tale.
While other cinematic dystopias seem to topple with a flick of the wrist, Panem is a rigged game in every sense, and the malevolent and decadent forces in the Capitol won’t give up power without a long, bloody fight. In the first movie, Katniss both won the Hunger Games, a winner-take-all bloodsport intended to distract and terrify the masses, and served as a symbol for the oppressed people of the 12 districts. The purringly evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) can’t have that. Snow is the sort of villain who can threaten Kat’s mother while enjoying her home-baked cookies.
Snow’s plan to defang Katniss is to turn her into a celebrity, sending her and her partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on a “Victory Tour” of the districts she bested, smiling for the cameras and reading from cue cards. Fearing for her family, Katniss tries to play the game, plastering on a plastic smile and trying to ignore the suffering she sees in the districts. But the gulf between Katniss and Peeta’s stage-managed kisses, and the beatings and even killings being administered by government jackboots in the crowds before her, is genuinely sickening.
From her gilded cage, Katniss sees that a thirst for revolution is growing, and decides she can’t play Panem’s Kim Kardashian any more. So Snow, with the help of his new games master Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), devises a new way to defeat her — a Tournament of Champions Hunger Games, where Katniss and Peeta fight to the death with 22 other past winners. Some of the casting here is great, including Jena Malone as an axe-wielding dynamo (spinoff please), and Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as an older but brainier team.
So much of “Catching Fire” follows the structure of the first “Hunger Games” — the training sequences, the forged alliances, the fights in the arena. But the film shuffles the deck in interesting ways — in this new arena, the combatants have to fight off traps and dangers devised by Plutarch as much as each other. (Some of this gets a little wearying, as Katniss runs from one visual effect after another.)
And because the players are all hardened veterans, that unseemly sight of kids killing kids from the first film is gone. Instead, there’s an underlying solidarity between many of the players that reveals itself in unexpected ways.
The new cast additions are welcome here, especially Hoffman as the chillingly inscrutable Plutarch, who gives the most un-fun line reading to “Fun is my business” imaginable. And the cast from the first movie are given much more to do. Stanley Tucci continues to be a hoot as the ivory-toothed, lavendered-eyebrowed talk show host Caesar, Josh Hutcherson is growing into his role as the gentle Peeta, and how Elizabeth Banks can be so funny and yet poignant as the frilly Ellie Trinket, emoting from under a pair of feather-duster eyebrows, I’ll never know.
But this is Jennifer Lawrence’s show, and she’s both vulnerable and powerful as Katniss, convincing as both a symbol of hope for her people, and the teenage girl behind the image, unsure if she can live up to it. “Catching Fire” ends on an “Empire Strikes Back”-style note of irresolution (the final book, “Mockingjay,” will be split into two movies), and I expected the movie would end with some big plot twist, or grand visual effect.
No, the film ends on a close-up of Jennifer Lawrence’s tear-stained face, slowly hardening into resolve. Francis Lawrence knows exactly which arrow in his quiver is the most powerful.