By Gary Dowell
More engaging than the soft-soaped first installment, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a little too bogged down by tedium and a surprising degree of stiffness to be more than a modest improvement. In all fairness, however, it is the second act of a three-part story arc, two hours and thirty minutes of build-up with pay-off delayed until part three arrives (and that’s likely to be a two-parter in and of itself). That said, it’s still an ambitious adaptation of some difficult subject matter that will likely please die-hard fans drawn at least a few skeptical newbies.
The movie picks up shortly after the events of the first film, with our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, whose skill as an actress is rapidly outgrowing the material) and fellow survivor/unrequited love interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) forced to pretend to be deeply, madly in love while on a national victory tour. Katniss is plagued by survivor’s guilt, as well as the turmoil her romantic charade has caused between her and would-be beau Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The tour gives her the opportunity to discover that the other districts are as depressed and ravaged as her own, and to observe the extent of the Capitol’s oppressive, parasitic doctrine.
Katniss’ rising popularity as a beacon of hope begins to gnaw at President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who has Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) game his own system in a novel attempt to first discredit her, and then kill her by devising something special for the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games: The players for the games will be selected from among the survivors of previous games, meaning Katniss and Peeta will once more have to fight to death. Their allies include cocky Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin, more charming than the male leads), inventive Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and his screwy sidekick Wiress (Amanda Plummer, playing weird as only she can), and angry and outspoken Johanna Mason (Jena Malone). The focus is almost exclusively on them once the game starts and their opponents are relegated to walking plot devices, but with a group as dynamic and pissed-off as this, one hardly notices.
It seems to take a long time to get to that point though, with a lot of convoluted and clunky (but apparently necessary) plot-spinning and romantic waffling between Katniss and her suitors beforehand, the latter of which seems like an ill-fit for such a determined and independent character, especially as played by the fiery Lawrence. Fans of the book won’t mind so much, they can enjoy the play-acting of the material while knowing what’s to come, but anyone who hasn’t read the series will likely be frustrated by the lack of a sweeping narrative, and heaven help anyone who decides to jump aboard here.
In all fairness, the movies are, and probably always will be, dogged by the fact that they are based on dark, violent subject matter sanitized for the protection of a target audience of adolescents. Gary Ross played it too safe with the first installment, only vaguely sketching the story’s dystopic setting and questionably delivering a bloodless blockbuster about kids forced to kill kids in gladiatorial combat for the reality TV era. This time around, director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) delivers something far more potent, displaying a willingness to fully engage with the story’s darker elements. The first Hunger Games was content to be a satire on the media; Lawrence goes a different route, focusing on sociopolitical commentary. (Think “Occupy PanEm” without drum circles.) Though he isn’t able to streamline the plot quite enough, he does succeed in raising the stakes and making them more clear.
The movie — and the series so far — is still Lawrence’s to lose, and she continues to own it. Her talent as an actor has shown a steep trajectory, and it’s worth pointing out that she was an Oscar nominee (for Winter’s Bone) when Hunger Games was released, and is now an Oscar winner (The Silver Linings Playbook). She carries the bland likes of Hutcherson and Hemsworth (surely Katniss can do better than the two namby pamby pretty boys circling her), and holds her own when opposite veterans like Sutherland Hoffman, and returning co-stars Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci. There are few, if any, young actors other than her who could play the type of strong, capable, insightful heroine embodied by Katniss.