What a difference a director can make.
The first Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville), was a middling adventure, not an embarrassing translation of Suzanne Collinsf hit young-adult novel to the big screen but nothing transcendent either. The sequel, from Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine), is darker in tone, more explicitly political, and more kinetic in style, making for a much more compelling, involving experience.
In theory, life is good for our heroes at the opening of Catching Fire. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the controversial victors from the last Hunger Games, now live in relative luxury compared to their downtrodden fellow citizens in District 12.
But all is not well. Because the world, which watched the Hunger Games on TV, believes Katniss and Peeta are deeply in love, Katniss can't be with the guy she really wants, working-class Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Her real life can't conflict with her contrived, "reality TV" life.
And underneath the veneer of police-state calm, things are starting to boil. As one of their duties as victors, Katniss and Peeta must go on tour, speaking to the masses in all the districts about the glory of the games. If they donft do as their told, their families could suffer.
But the twosomefs burst of defiance at the end of the last film -- they threatened to commit suicide together, depriving President Snow (Donald Sutherland) of any Hunger Games victor -- has put them on thin ice with the powers-that-be. The pair's action also sparked a flame of revolution among the populace, turning Katniss into a symbol of resistance. The people enjoyed their circus; now they want their bread.
Snow becomes even more brutal -- sending in goons to all the districts to lay down the law -- and believes winners of all the previous games may be a threat. So he decides to thin the herd. What better way than to stage an all-star Hunger Games, in which the combatants would kill each other thus saving Snow the trouble of having to do it himself?
Thatfs how our winners find themselves back in "the arena" -- an island surrounded by a force field -- to battle it out with teams that are much fiercer opponents than those in the moviefs first incarnation. Not to mention this time therefs poison fog and watch out for that army of angry mandrills.
Though the romantic triangle of Katniss, Peeta, and Gale provides the story's heart, itfs the film's wry take on media as social control (Stanley Tucci returns as the unctuous Hunger Games TV host, Caesar Flickerman), sharp sense of action, and smart peformances that give Catching Fire its soul. Lawrence shows much more range this time around and Philip Seymour Hoffman brings a hint of evil genius in his role as the game designer Plutarch Heavensbee.
Written by Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine), from the novel by Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire is entertaining enough that it doesn't feel like it's 2 1/2 hours. In fact, when it ends rather abruptly, you may find yourself wanting more.
But don't fear. Lawrence is on board for the next two installments.