The thoroughly enjoyable The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a gut punch that might be too much for younger audiences.
Sequels - and particularly sophomore efforts in a series - are hard to pull off. Expectations ran too high with Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, and in many ways Iron Man 2 and 3 have suffered the same fate. Others - like the predictable Grown Ups 2 - never grow beyond their scope, content to churn out a perfect duplicate while raking in the cash. Luckily, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire doesn't rest on the laurels of its older brother and excels in every way possible, delivering a powerful swing of the axe to our characters that reminds us of The Empire Strikes Back.
Set three months after the 74th Hunger Games, Fire shows us that not all is well across the 12 districts: protests and violent responses by The Capitol City and its dictator President Snow (Donald Sutherland) are on the rise, as is a growing rebellion unintentionally inspired by Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who beat all odds in the games to emerge victorious. Although they now live in greater comfort than ever before, the seeds of hatred against Snow have been germinating within our heroes, who soon learn the price of winning the games. The citizens of District 12 are similarly angry, and a victory tour turns violent and deadly throughout the Districts as all of Panem seems on the edge of war. Fellow Tribute Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) tries to keep Peeta and Katniss focused, but even he and their publicist/escort Effie (Elizabeth Banks) sense something darker is being planned.
Catching Fire is not merely another distopian commentary on a world gone mad with dictatorial power; there's so many appealing layers here, brought to us via a shakeup in the creative team, with Francis Lawrence stepping into the director's chair and bringing Writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt along for the ride. The result is a powerful film that's broken into two parts: the first, a deep political tale that sees Katniss dragged further down the rabbit hole, unable to stop Snow and unwilling to lead the rebellion; and an action-packed second filled with deadly mist and angry animals, all wrapped up in a tropical house or horror. We think the best way to enjoy this series is not to read the books until afterwards, for the excitement and surprises contained within certainly made their effects more pronounced for the uninitiated. This is a deeper, darker tale that feels more like a punch to the gut than a triumphant escape for our heroes. Such things will have an effect on younger children, and violent scenes of people being whipped or beaten to death might be too much for them, along with the long run time. But, it's appreciated that Lawrence and his creative team have made a commitment to telling as much of this story as possible. Our tours through the Districts and Capitol City are enlightening, as these provide an important backbone to understanding just how destitute and ludicrous things have become before it all goes bad.
Lawrence, Harrelson, and Sutherland seem to relish in their roles, fueling Beaufoy and Arndt's very good script with terrific performances, while introducing new faces like Hoffman, Malone, and Clafin, all of whom shine early and often. Clafin slides effortlessly into Finnick, reflecting a good mix of arrogance and total commitment to winning the games. We also loved the return of over-the-top television host Caesar (the great Stanley Tucci), who thinks he's more important than Katniss or even the games themselves. Lawrence has certainly upped the ante here, delivering a sequel that might actually outdo the original.
Granted, no film is perfect, and Catching Fire does feature a litany of undeveloped faces that meet untimely ends wrapped within a couple of predictable moments. But, these are small and never demean the effort, which is as impressive as anything we've seen all year. Catching Fire's cautionary tale about assuming you know enough about your enemy to win makes for great watching, but go see it for its many other strengths as well. It gets a strong endorsement from us. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, and suggestive situations and language, and has a runtime of 146 minutes.
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