Hunger Games: Fire ✮✮✮

More Dangerous Games

by Glenn Lovell

This business of mollifying the masses with a people’s champion can have unforeseen consequences. Before you know it, the Average Joe and Josette are fancying themselves superheroes and you’ve got a full-scale insurrection on your hands. That was certainly the case with Spartacus, Maximus and Rocky Balboa.

And so it is again with Katniss Everdeen and baker’s boy Peeta Mellark, who were crowned the victors of Panem’s 74th annual Hunger Games, i.e. that purgative sop to the downtrodden. One of the tributes from District 12 was supposed to die in combat, but, to the surprise of the organizers, the young warriors attempted timageso go out together like Romeo and Juliet rather than perpetuate the lie of the totalitarian state.

In “Catching Fire,” the second in what will be four movies based on Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, Katniss and Peeta ‒ again played by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson ‒ reluctantly participate in a victory tour. That is, until they go off-script and President Snow (Donald Sutherland), on the urging of his master gamer (Philip Seymour Hoffman), adds “a new wrinkle”: Instead of selecting combatants from the outlying districts, why not gather all the past champions and have them fight to the death? It would kill two birds with one stone ‒ take out Katniss and stifle all potential unrest in the provinces.

Though it gets off to a sluggish, talky start, “Catching Fire” soon does just that as the palace intrigue, new combatant rivalries and nascent romance kick in. Act 3 is devoted to the ritualistic games, this time set in a domed jungle. Unlike most sequels, this one doesn’t coddle its target audience: It assumes a fair amount of knowledge on the part of the viewer. It helps to know what the Reaping and Cornucopia are, what role Nightlock berries played in the last film, and what happened to Seneca and Rue.

In place of the usual franchise cliff-hanger? A tantalizing close-up that’s as gutsy as it is understated.

Solidly directed by Francis Lawrence (“Constantine,” “I Am Legend”), “Fire” pays less attention to the Dickensian conditions of the outlying districts and the retro-futuristic design of the Capitol and concentrates more on political conspiracies and arena obstacles, including poisonous fog and ferocious mutant monkeys. Lawrence, to her credit, never attempts to woo us. Her quick-draw archer, now suffering PTSD, is all glowering charisma, an even stronger role model for the target audience (adolescent girls). Besides Sutherland as the imperious Snow, the returning cast members include Woody Harrelson as the now-less-cynical mentor, Stanley Tucci (channeling Peter Sellers?) as the hyperbolic emcee, Elizabeth Banks as the chirpy, ostrich-plumed escort, and Lenny Kravitz as the valiant dresser, who this time outdoes himself with a wedding gown that morphs into a mockingbird.

Also participating this time around are Hoffman as the gleefully sadistic game-maker, Jena Malone as Katniss’s showiest new rival, Jeffrey Wright as a contestant who depends more on brains than brawn, Sam Claflin as a suspiciously omnipresent new ally, and Amanda Plummer (typecast as usual) as the particpant most likely to come unhinged.

The muted electronic score ‒ definitely worth an Oscar nod ‒ is by James Newton Howard.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” and “Part 2,” will be shot in tandem and released in November 2014 and ’15.

Lovell, longtime movie critic for the San Jose Mercury News, teaches film studies at De Anza College in Northern California. He has written about film for Variety, L.A. Times and, most recently, Boston Globe.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE ✮✮✮ With Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright. Directed by Francis Lawrence; scripted by Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt from Suzanne Collins trilogy. 146 min. PG-13 (for violence, profanity)

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