By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Last year’s The Hunger Games made us hungry for more (see Bill Wine’s review).
The follow-up is more, and in more ways than one.
Both are compelling action-adventure science fiction thrillers based on the futuristic dystopian fantasy from the novels by Suzanne Collins.
But this first sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (the middle entry in the trilogy), delves deeper into the resonant themes introduced in its predecessor –- such as the cult of celebrity — expands the mythology, reflects real-life horrors in its mounting of the titular “entertainment,” and further fleshes out the primary characters.
Catching Fire returns us to Panem, the ruins of what was once North America, where the annual fight-to-the-death reality TV show competition that gives the film its title is produced by a totalitarian government devoted to having, while ruling the lives of the have-nots.
The narrative this time focuses on the “Victors’ Tour” of the districts embarked upon by the champions of the 74th annual Hunger Games tournament, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the triumphant tributes who have returned home safe as a rebellion brews, even as President Snow (Donald Sutherland), still firmly in command, prepares for the 75th edition, an all-star gathering known as a Quarter Quell, an event that occurs every 25 years.
Champs Katniss and Peeta will compete again against stiffer life-or-death competition and more intimidating odds as the president is determined to eliminate them and thus help quash the rebellion of the Districts against the oppressive Capitol that Katniss has more or less inadvertently triggered with her defiant attitude as she has become a symbol of hope for the oppressed masses.
When the original opened in 2012, Ms. Lawrence was a young, up-and-coming screen actress (with an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone) being introduced to a mainstream audience.
Now, J-Law returns in the lead as an established actress who has herself caught fire and won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook.
As we know by now, Lawrence can hold the screen like nobody’s business. And she is, not surprisingly, fine once again as the reluctant heroine, ferociously competitive but nonetheless vulnerable — a role not unlike her Oscar-winning outing, come to think of it.
The director, Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants, Constantine) -– no relation to the film’s star -– has replaced Gary Ross in the director’s chair and worked from a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt that is based on Collins’ second installment.
Back again are Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, and Liam Hensworth, this time joined by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who doesn’t bring much to the table and seems curiously unengaged) as the new Head Gamemaker and Amanda Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, and Jena Malone as former winners back in the fray.
And although there is a love triangle with Katniss at the apex embedded in the narrative, instead of stealing focus in the same way that the love triangle does in, say, the Twilight franchise, it is appropriately downplayed.
As for the treacherous central competition (“Last year was child’s play,” says Harrelson’s ex-champ, Haymitch), featuring alliances and betrayals, it’s a long time coming –- not that the narrative ever flags or sags — as a platform for more forced teenage sadism, but it’s a powerfully visceral sequence.
Still, anyone seeking full closure at film’s end should be reminded that this is a middle chapter.
So we’ll rebel against 3½ stars out of 4. The odds remain in the favor of the audience for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, who will hereby start looking forward to the two-part finale.