“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” smashingly continues this series of movies based in turn on a trilogy of novels by best-selling author Suzanne Collins. Everything has certainly been ramped up for this film.
The budget is greater — $130 million versus that paltry $78 million for the original — below-the-line support is stronger, plus Jennifer Lawrence now appears in the starring role of Katniss with the gale-force propulsion of an Oscar win at her back.
Even the Games themselves have upped the ante.
“Last year was child’s play,” Katniss’ mentor Haymitch (played by Woody Harrelson) snarls at his protege as the totalitarian mega federation known as Panem — how I wish that didn’t sound like Pan Am, a defunct airline — schemes to disable a growing rebellion against its authoritarian rule.
Bottom line: The movie delivers.
The problem for a critic in assessing any single film in a series — say the first “Kill Bill” or the second “Harry Potter” — is that it’s like trying to assess the second act of a movie without knowing what the third might bring.
“Catching Fire” is pretty much a second act. So let’s just say that the thrills in “Catching Fire” are constant and the filmmaking very competent. Never has 146 minutes gone by so swiftly.
I aim to spend little time on plot here since either you know it — having read the novels which are officially YA but with a body count that makes you wonder about that literary niche — or don’t want plot spoilers.
So here’s the basics: Having won the 74th Hunger Games our Katniss (Lawrence) is back home in her bedraggled Dickensian home in “District 12,” preparing for an official victory tour mandated by the government.
(On a side note, Haymitch does point out that no one actually “wins” these gladiator games, which are designed to distract the populace of this future dystopia under virulent control by a fascist government. All one really does is survive.)
Yet instead of sorting out whether her reward will be Bachelor No. 1, Hunger Games co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), or Bachelor No. 2, true-love though sooty miner Gale (Liam Hemsworth), she finds herself locked in a political battle of wills with Panem President Snow (Donald Sutherland) .
Since Katniss has come to symbolize rebellion and the districts seem to be in that state during her so-called “Victors’ Tour,” Snow has decided to rain on her parade. She must die. But does one kill off a popular favorite?
He declares the 75th Games will be dedicated to a contest among former winners, which thereby includes the doomed Katniss, a violation of all the rules and a decision that propels our heroine into yet another game.
These first-act developments and the training period in which the contestants test and display their skills allow you to get re-acquainted with Elizabeth Banks as the combatants’ style maven and den mother Effie Trinket, Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ sharp designer Cinna and the irrepressible Stanley Tucci as the sycophantic TV host Caesar Flickerman.
There is an interesting new character in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee — what a name — a freshly appointed gamemaker, who seems more than willing to rig the game to please his ultimate boss, Pres. Snow.
This is a sly and treacherous new addition, played by an actor who can add layers of meaning by simply walking onto a set.
It’s hard to imagine how this series of films would have gone had Jennifer Lawrence not shot to stardom at the same time. Yes, several talented and beautiful young actresses could have played the role but only Lawrence could have starred as Katniss Everdeen.
For that’s what the role requires: A star playing a star. But a star with fresh innocence and determined ethics, a woman who can look hot when stripped down for war or glamorous when decked out for Panem’s grand pageants but who remains a street fighter/rebel.
Lawrence has some of that shy earnest of early Ingrid Bergman yet with a streak of Bette Davis intensity. Lawrence has a look about her whether searching for the next deadly threat in the arena or exchanging wordless glances with Pres. Snow that reflects vigilant wariness of her wretched world. She hates the place.
Lawrence’s taut bow and lethal arrows have become the greatest symbols of female empowerment and sexuality in recent movie history. She strides through the “Hunger Games” movies like a tigress determined to fight to the death.
Along with her two “beaux” from the previous film, a new one emerges although more an ally than suitor. Sam Claflin’s Finnick Odair (above right), who won the 65th Games when he was just 14-years-old, comes on too strong at first. You — and Katniss — suspect his ego and charm.
Yet gradually he proves himself to her — he proves his skills as a strategist and a loyal ally.
Other notable newcomers include Jeffrey Wright as a brilliant tech geek Beetee, who’s paired as an odd-couple with Amanda Plummer’s Wiress. Jena Malone has eye-catching moments as the ax-throwing Johanna, whose allegiance remains in doubt for quite a while.
Hoffman, Tucci and to some extent Sutherland all deliver over-the-top acting but it’s called for here. They’re all Panem phonies who revel in their phoniness.
There’re performers who must devour scenery and hit lines hard to convey the full extent of their malevolent acting for Panem’s TV audiences. The whole world is watching and they mean to scare everyone on the social margins with sneering contempt.
Francis Lawrence directs and you might call this the Revenge of the Hack. He is no serious film artist but marshall his forces and smoothly brings the script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn to the screen.
“Hunger Games” not only doesn’t require an artist it performs better without one. Someone imposing a “vision” on this nonsense would probably mess it up. Why the original director Gary Ross left during preproduction I don’t know, but possibly he was headed in that direction.
“The Hunger Games” is commerce, not art. It’s spectacle and cartoon nonsense built around a spectacular young actress.
So much so that one waits impatiently for the adaptation of the final book, “Mockingjay,” to be divided, not surprisingly, into two films directed by Lawrence, the first of which will be released next November.
Let the Games continue.
Opens November 22, 2013 (Lionsgate)
Production companies: Color Force, Lionsgate
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriters: Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn
Based on the novel by: Suzanne Collins
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik
Executive producers: Suzanne Collins, Louise Rosner-Meyer, Joe Drake, Allison Shearmur
Director of photography: Jo Willems
Production designer: Philip Messina
Music: James Newton Howard
Visual effects supervisor: Janek Sirrs
Costume designer: Trish Summerville
Editor: Alan Edward Bell
PG-13 rating, 146 minutes