The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a lot like its own celebrity heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who begins this second Hunger Games movie fulfilling a public relations tour as penance for her killer—literally, killer—popularity. She is adored by millions; the books are, too. The three Suzanne Collins novels, to be spread across four films, are being adapted with both eyes on fidelity to the source material. All Catching Fire had to do was to show up, look good and not screw up to succeed.
Consider Catching Fire an example of successful franchise installment delivery, on time and in sturdy condition.
Some interesting shifts in tone and texture this time out. The film looks nothing like the first, Gary Ross-directed Hunger Games, which I slightly prefer to the solid, well-paced No. 2. Catching Fire features director Francis Lawrence behind the camera, and already he has signed for the next two. Ross favored handheld shaky-cam stylistics in his depiction of futuristic totalitarian America, a police-state mess known as Panem. Lawrence, by contrast, shoots Catching Fire with a steadier gaze and a sleeker touch, offering a little bit of everything and not too much of any one thing.
For newbies: The games of the title are battles to the death between cunning, resourcefully murderous representatives of Panem’s beaten-down districts. Through her wiles, her bow-and-arrow skills and her bangin’ fashion sense, Katniss triumphed, mournfully, in the first movie, surviving to the end and cleverly engineering a life-saving maneuver for her friend and fellow district competitor, the baker’s son, Peeta.
Catching Fire opens in the script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn with Katniss and Peeta, pretending to be sweethearts for a rabid TV audience, embarking on their 12-day victory tour, culminating in a big show at the capitol. President Snow connives to crush this fearsomely famous woman, whose ability to foment revolution among the oppressed masses is nothing to dismiss. The movie is part treatise on the hardships of unwanted notoriety, part blood sport revisited, the games this time played by an all-star cadre of past winners.
Ways to die? Oh so many. This time there’s creeping, human-made poisonous fog, which gives its victims a miserable case of acne, as if there weren’t already enough points of identification for teens. There are electrocutions, stabbings and other classics. Shooting in Hawaii, which gives this sequel a distinct Lost look, director Lawrence traffic-manages with considerable effectiveness. The simian attack, for example, which is plenty scary, recalls Lawrence’s work with the computer-generated beasties in his remake of I Am Legend, the one starring Will Smith.
Like that picture, Catching Fire has the bonus of a genuinely charismatic performer at its center. Jennifer Lawrence, now an Oscar winner thanks to Silver Linings Playbook, emotes like crazy throughout Catching Fire, but you never catch her acting. It feels real, and Lawrence sees to it that we rarely experience the dramatic set-ups in terms of cheap revenge or conventional movie blood lust.
Josh Hutcherson returns as Peeta; Gale Hawthorne, his romantic rival for Katniss’ preoccupied affections (she’s got a lot going on, after all) is once again played by Liam Hemsworth. Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz buzz around engagingly as Katniss’ entourage. You keep waiting for better zingers, which never arrive, but The Hunger Games isn’t about wit; it’s about blunt lessons in hypocrisy and class warfare, about to be waged but good.
Newcomers to the franchise, all welcome, include Philip Seymour Hoffman as the game designer with the ambiguous motives, and Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of unlikely competitors, more about brains than brawn. The violence in Catching Fire can get pretty rough, but the reason these first two movies work relates to our ability to take the carnage seriously. Lawrence’s Katniss doesn’t Bruce-Willis her way through the events of the rather thinly spread story. Each time she witnesses a killing, state-sanctioned or otherwise, it hurts. It means something. We’re not talking about highly dimensional or evocative mythmaking here; the films are more about hitting the marks and setting up the next part. But they work.
Postscript A: I find the rampant fashion merchandising tie-ins with Catching Fire pretty strange, given the outré, drag-queeny excess of costume designer Trish Summerville’s clothes. At times the results verge on Priscilla: Queen of the Hunger Games. But for many the costumes are part of the dystopian, blood-stained fun.
Postscript B: Stanley Tucci reprises, drolly, his role of the oily reality-TV host from the first picture. If his teeth get any whiter we’re going to need special glasses to watch the third one.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (PG-13) ★★★☆☆