The most remarkable quality of the “Harry Potter” series on both page and screen was its growth from an episodic series of fairly interchangeable kiddie adventures into an evolving narrative of distinctly political and practical stakes. Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” began with a less fantastical foundation, as young warriors found themselves pitted against one another in a ruthless arena for the world to see, but “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” suggests that this franchise is already looking to deal as much in media manipulation and bureaucratic fear-mongering as it is in teenage bloodletting.
When last we saw Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson), they were threatening to commit suicide on live TV rather than sacrifice themselves for the sake of the 74th Annual Hunger Games having its lone victor. The bluff worked, and with Katniss and Peeta setting out on their Victory Tour under the guise of a passionate romance (he feels that way; she remains partial to Liam Hemsworth’s Gale back home), President Snow (Donald Sutherland) seeks to smother the hope that these young champions have instilled in the downtrodden, borderline defiant populace of Panem. With the arrival of the 75th Hunger Games -- also known as the third Quarter Quell -- Snow and new gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) orchestrate an event for which participants are chosen from a pool of past victors, which means that Katniss and Peeta are thrust once more into danger against more experienced foes as an increasingly oppressive government bears down on the land’s 12 Districts.
“Enjoy your time in the spotlight,” advises Katniss’ ever flamboyant handler, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), early on. “You’ve earned it.” As our young, talented protagonist makes the rounds with a plastered smile at every event, it’s not especially hard to see the parallels between Katniss’ PR tour and the Oscar winner’s own recent awards season duties, sure to continue this fall with the arrival of “American Hustle.” Lawrence sells the constant glad-handing and hardly hidden post-traumatic stress disorder as well as her character’s legendary archery prowess, enough so that her scarcely compelling dalliances with either Peeta or Gale feel like an understandable afterthought. She has a family to consider, if not her entire District, so it only seems right that at least one of her romantic relationships is a false one, just there to appease the masses. (Take note, “Twilight.”)
Taking the reins from Gary Ross, director Francis Lawrence – no relation – preserves the established on-screen look and feel of soot-stained Panem and the far more lavish Capitol, where everyone’s hair, garb and very names fall somewhere between the worlds of “Marie Antoinette” and “Southland Tales.” Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz have returned as Katniss and Peeta’s mentors, as has Stanley Tucci as impossibly vivacious emcee Caesar Flickerman. Fellow competitors include Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair, Jena Malone as Johanna Mason and even the esteemed likes of Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as two more tech-savvy participants in the Games, and each gets to make their own colorful contribution to the story.
Ross reportedly bowed out due to the shoot’s time constraints, but once the action gets underway, Lawrence (“Constantine,” “I Am Legend”) demonstrates a welcome eye for steady-handed action coverage that alone elevates this film above its predecessor. For all this talk of fire, much of the new arena heavily involves water more than any other element, the recurring motif eventually evoking strong baptismal imagery (not to mention an off-screen rain of blood). The fact that an attack by a pack of angry monkeys feels intense rather than laughable in the wake of the first film’s rabid dog creatures marks a due amount of commitment from the main players and effects teams alike.
Despite new writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt adapting Collins’ second novel, “Catching Fire” is still frustratingly beholden to a structure identical to the first film: an hour of blue-collar handwringing, a half-hour of mandatory training and twirling, followed by an hour of the Games themselves. With any luck, the last novel -- to be released as two separate movies, naturally -- will see a change of pace with its escalated stakes. If the cliffhanger ending of this one is any indication, for the next two “Games,” all bets are off.
SCORE: 7.9 / 10