The girl on fire is back.
In the wake of the events depicted in 2011’s HUNGER GAMES, Katiss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutchinson) return to their impoverished District 12 home. They’re celebrities now, having survived Panem’s 74th annual kill-or-be-killed contest thrust—but neither enjoys playing puppet for an evil oligarchy whose Big Brother cameras broadcast their every move. Katniss feels especially awkward acting out her contrived romance with bread boy Peeta because her heart still belongs to hunky Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).
Or so she thinks; we aren’t sure either.
The “lovebirds” discover the impact of their Romeo and Juliet “cheat” from the first movie when they’re shuttled off for a victory tour in the districts. Traditionally, the tours (like the games themselves) are carefully staged to placate the long-suffering working class by providing false symbols of hope. But Katniss learns firsthand that her cunning—and compassion—have truly galvanized a populace that no longer wishes to be subjugated or condescended to with reality TV blood lust. A graffito sprayed along the train route outside the Capitol expresses the consensus of the people: “The odds are never in our favor.”
Booze-swilling mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) reminds Katniss and Peeta that their job—like it or not—is to distract everyone from the real problem. Chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) instructs them to offer token thanks and disingenuous eulogies for fallen “tributes,” but the hot-headed youngsters venture off-script, inciting audiences with their moving words. Outraged, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) dispatches his “peacekeeper” police force into the districts to sow fear by flogging and executing dissidents. He also tightens the screws on uppity “victors” like Katniss and Haymitch by targeting their families.
“We must eradicate their species,” croaks Snow, reviewing a disturbance on one of his ubiquitous video monitors. “They think they’re invincible.”
New gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sucks up by proposing a “wrinkle” for the 75th games: The “Quarter Quell” will pit past victors against one another in a lethal new arena, where they’ll risk alienating their districts if they kill in cold blood—but be wiped out fast if they don’t. Snow loves the idea because it means the troublesome Katiss, as District 12’s only female winner ever, is again “selected” for involuntary mortal combat. Our girl would rather die than comply, of course, but she knows the president has eyes (and crosshairs) on Gale and sister Primrose back home.
The “best of” theme finds Katniss competing against seasoned adults with prior experience and nothing to lose (except their lives) rather than a bunch of other DAWSON’S CREEK dropouts, so we’re on edge from the get-go. The crafty Gloss, muscular Brutus, and fang-toothed Enobaria head up the sadistic “careers” in the simulated tropics, while axe-swinging Johanna (Jena Malone), trident-wielding Finnick (Sam Clafin), and frail, elderly Maggs (Lynn Cohen) comprise regular tributes who, like Katniss, are none too pleased about reliving old nightmares. In a brave display of solidarity, the luckless contestants vent frustration and join hands on Caesar Flickerman’s television sideshow, where Peeta concocts stories that may or may not afford Katniss some protection in the elements.
Dehydration is the least of the contestants’ worries in the updated rainforest arena. Rogue waves, toxic fog, and meat-eating madrills pose ‘round-the-clock threats (pay attention), while computer programmers remotely influence every melee with force fields, hallucinogenic “jabberjay” birds, and other assorted perils. Combatants are similarly-attired in black and grey wetsuits this time out, but there’s another “cornucopia” weapons cache, from which Katniss—an avid archer—emerges with a sleek new bow. Canon fire still notifies players of casualties, whose faces are projected onto a faux sky at night (accompanied by schmaltzy music). The intrepid heroine forges uneasy alliances with Finnick and District 3’s Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), whose personality quirks earn them the nicknames “Nuts and Volts,” and her trust in them (and others) is repeatedly tested.
“Remember who the real enemy is,” cautions Finnick.
Katniss vows to not kill if she doesn’t have to. But we know this wouldn’t be much of a movie if she didn’t have to, and we secretly thrill when she reaches into her quiver for an arrow. Replacing game architect Seneca Crane, Heavensbee manipulates Kat and the others like chessboard pawns, smirking as the action unfolds on-screen, completely unawares someone might be rigging the game from the inside.
The violence here is on par with HUNGER GAMES, so parents wondering about the PG-13 rating need look no further than the first film for an idea what to expect. As in the original, the kills in CATCHING FIRE happen fast and are shakily-rendered if shown on camera at all. Your youngster will more likely be traumatized by the police brutality early on (including a beloved character’s punishment at a whipping post) and run-in later with the carnivorous “monkey mutts.” It’s a wonder the filmmakers show the tributes grappling with (and impaling) the bloodthirsty baboons, given the number of activists out there who cry foul at the first sign of animal cruelty, special FX be damned.
Which is just one of many reasons why Francis Lawrence (CONSTANTINE, I AM LEGEND) deserves a nod for his efforts and daring. Taking the helm from HUNGER GAMES director Gary Ross, the music video maestro imbues book two of Suzanne Collins’ acclaimed series with crackling celluloid energy that’ll satisfy fans of the novel whilst riveting average Joes who were only mildly amused by the first outing. Sure, the blueprint here is nearly the same, what with the 146-minute epic spooling out into three well-defined acts (exposition / reaping / arena). But Lawrence—like the deliriously nasty President Snow—masterfully toys with our emotions, transforming Collins’ text into taut, adrenalized scenes that’ll have viewers gnawing their nails, fighting back waterworks, and fuming at the corrupt powers that be.
Academy Award-winner Jennifer Lawrence mesmerizes again, devoting just the right dramatic heft to key sequences with her dialogue, facial expressions, and athleticism. For example, when Katniss is picked again for another round of gaming, Lawrence doesn’t merely impart disappointment or even anger: She runs bawling into the woods and assumes the fetal position under a tree, selling us on Kat’s despondence. Her performance likewise enhances the story’s love triangle by portraying Katniss as being just as confused over her attachments to Peeta and Gale as we are. After a while, we can’t tell which of Kat’s kisses are pretend.
Hutcherson, Hemsworth, Harrelson, Clafin, and Wright also manage to enliven characters who might otherwise read like cardboard cutouts. The film’s funniest line goes not to Harrelson’s drunken tutor, but to Malone’s spunky tribute, whose colorful protest over inclusion in another game adds welcome levity midway through.
CATCHING FIRE is to HUNGER GAMES what THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was to STAR WARS: a cliffhanging middle installment wherein the bad guys torment the heroes for their obstinence, whetting our appetites for paybacks and comeuppances next time around [Apparently 2015's MOCKINGJAY will be split into two episodes, like the final entries in the HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT films]. Remember how you felt in 1980 when Han and Leia revealed their true feelings for each other before Darth Vader and Boba Fett freeze-dried Han in carbonite? This film delivers similar sucker-punches to our kids.
It's almost a shame a third book already exists to "spoil" the resolution. 3 ½ out of 4 stars.