“THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE” My rating: A- (Now showing)
146 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
Most fans of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy agree that the series peaked with the first book.
Nobody seems to have told the makers of “Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Here’s a sequel that is not only a match for the original, but in many ways superior.
I was so wowed by the first film’s canny blend of crowd-pleasing elements and incisive political allegory – the series basically presents a world in which the one-percent have life-and-death power over everyone else – that I forgave some missteps. In retrospect, Gary Ross’s direction was a bit tentative and few moments (like the computer generated dog-beasts) rang false.
But under the direction of Francis Lawrence, “Catching Fire” is a tremendously accomplished work, one that remains slickly entertaining while reinforcing Collins’ potent socio/political agenda.
Picking up just a few months after the conclusion of the first film, “Fire” finds Hunger Games winners Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) on a victory tour of the impoverished districts, where some rebellious souls insist on viewing them as revolutionary icons.
As you’ll recall, the two triumphed in the games by pretending to fall in love, thus engaging public support and allowing the operators of the game to declare both of them winners (normally only one combatant survives). Having to pretend she’s in love with Peeta only makes Katniss more surly than usual. As for Peeta, he’s genuinely smitten by his woman warrior.
And then there’s the hunky Gale (Liam Hemsworth), for whom Katnis has genuine feelings. It’s a very touchy three-way relationship.
Anyway, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) views Katniss and Peeta as potential rivals and with the help of a new game master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) arranges for a special new version of the Hunger Games. This time around it’s an all-star competition in which past winners will once again be forced to battle to the death. The idea is to make sure Katniss bites the big one this time around.
“Catching Fire” has a bunch of new characters. Jena Malone plays a bad-tempered brawler, Sam Claflin a supremely cocky past champion, and Jeffrey Wright offers a nifty turn as a braniac who won his game not with brute strength but by building a grid that electrocuted the competition.
You’ve gotta love Stanley Tucci as the oily, butt-kissing TV pundit Caesar Flickerman, who seems to channel every obsequious commentator from Bert Parks to Ryan Seacrist. Elizabeth Banks’ outrageous fashion maven Effie Trinkett gets to show a bit of emotional depth. Finally, Woody Harrelson is back again as Katnis’ mentor Haymitch Abernathy, only this time his boozy debauchery masks a sneaky ulterior plan.
Lawrence, who of course won an Oscar for best actress since the first “Hunger Games,” continues to amaze. Her Katniss is a fully-rounded character, a not –particularly-likeable individual whose moral compass gives the movie its power. If you’ve been watching her do the talk show circuit, you know that Lawrence is a ditzy delight…but there’s no hint of that here. The kid’s got gravitas when she needs it.
This is superior popular entertainment: well paced, dazzlingly mounted, totally diverting yet filled with heavyweight ideas.
| Robert W. Butler