Jennifer Lawrence’s triumphant career progress continues apace with the return of her heroically defiant Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire" (November 22). To say the second in the four-film franchise is eagerly awaited is putting it mildly. Fans of the first installment (and the phenomenally popular Suzanne Collins trilogy of novels) will not be disappointed in the darker, more drastic and suitably thrilling goings-on.
So confident is this in its brand appeal after the success of the first film, there’s not a lot of re-capping with Previouslies or ‘the story so far’ exposition. (Enter at your bewilderment if you didn’t actually read or see "The Hunger Games"; I was wishing I had seen it again more recently to get back up to speed.) And yet it takes its time getting going.
Haunted by her traumatic ordeal and victory in the latest Games, Katniss has been reunited with mother, sister and friend/sweetheart Gale (Liam Hemsworth) in the miserable mining community that is District 12 in dystopian, post-apocalyptic Panem. Fellow district Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is publicly supposed to be an item with Katniss, and privately he’s transparently smitten, so the love triangle is beginning to shape up. And, ominously, she is being watched. During the enforced “Victory Tour” in which Katniss and Peeta are paraded around the land it’s evident that rebellion is brewing and our gorgeous, pouting archer is being embraced by the huddled masses yearning to be free as its living symbol, the Mockingjay. (SPOILERS: Do not read on if you aren't familiar with the "Catching Fire" plot.)
This will never do in the decadent, corrupt Capitol, which looks like a fascist theme park populated with a satirically silly super-rich ruling class. Alive to the threat the charismatic Katniss presents, Donald Sutherland’s coldly calculating President Coriolanus Snow and his enigmatic new gamemaker, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee (love the ever zanier Roman Potteresque monikers), swiftly devise a shock twist rule change for the surprise 75th Anniversary Quarter Quell, in which 24 past champions are to compete against each other to the death in the ultimate merciless smack down.
It’s abundantly clear to the canny Kat that these games are rigged to besmirch her persona, or at least kill her. Her independence served her well the first time around, but interdependence becomes a principal theme here, with Kat needing friends and allies to survive. Good thing savvy Team Katniss, Woody Harrelson’s drunken mentor Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks’s fluffy fashionista minder Effie and Lenny Kravitz’s cool Cinna the stylist, are among welcome cast returnees. (Also entertaining the second time around is the Avenue of the Tributes procession, featuring Kat and Peeta’s costumes bursting into flames.)
This plays very much like the bridging “middle bit” in a multi-part epic. After an hour and a half of super-train journeys and incidents sufficiently cruel to spark insurgency, one shares with the citizenry of Capitol City an unseemly eagerness for the sadistic massacre to start. In its defense the breathing space allows Lawrence and the others to show more emotional depth and credible character maturation amid the adolescent mythology.
When we finally arrive at the new games venue, a beautiful tropical jungle dome arena laid out like a clock (wrought from Hawaiian locations, studio sets and spiffy digital FX), ingenious perils of blood rain, poison fog, psycho killer monkeys, unnatural disasters and a Hitchcockian bird attack by a flock of jabber jays come thick, fast and spectacularly shot with hand-held IMAX cameras. Most of the champions fall anonymously off camera while we focus on a handful working together to improve their odds, including Jena Malone’s angry, sarcastic Johanna and Sam Claflin’s do-we-trust-him-or-don’t-we? badass Finnick. The most fun are also the most unlikely past games winners, the brainy rather than fit Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer, who sadly isn’t around long enough to get her signature crazy full on but still makes her idiosyncratic mark).
New HG director Francis Lawrence (no relation, but the director of "Water for Elephants"), who is already at work on "The Mockingjay" Parts I and II, brings a determinedly photorealist approach and strives for gritty authenticity but never loses sight of the franchise’s glory and greatest weapon: Jennifer Lawrence. Touching, terrified, tortured or tough, she transfixes us from first to last, a cliffhanger to keep us hungry for more. See it on the biggest screen near you.