“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” should more than satisfy the cravings of fans who’ve spent the 20-month gap between movies quivering with anticipation.
Get it? Quiver-ing?
Oh, well. They can’t all be winners.
Back home in District 12, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) seems like the same girl we saw the last time she was there. She’s still sneaking through the supposedly electrified fence to hunt with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), still hiding her bow and quiver of arrows in the woods. But she’s haunted by her experiences, suffering from nightmares and PTSD-like symptoms from what she endured during the 74th Hunger Games.
Those games secured a nice house for her family in Victor’s Village, a stone’s throw from Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson).
But even that relative comfort proves short-lived, thanks to a surprise visit from President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
He’s not the only one who saw Katniss’ plan — for her and Gale to eat the poisonous berries rather than kill each other — for the act of rebellion it was. Many in the districts are using her defiance to sow the seeds of revolution. Snow warns Katniss that the only way she can stop the devastation of full-scale war is if she uses their upcoming victory tour to convince the rest of Panem that she’s truly, madly in love with Peeta.
Unfortunately for her, she’s truly, madly not.
When she fails, Snow sends “peacekeepers” to District 12 to burn the marketplaces, kill anyone caught outside after dusk and initiate public floggings in the town square, starting with Gale. (Poor Hemsworth. After all that time with Miley, hasn’t he been through enough?)
As a last-ditch effort to destroy the increasingly popular Katniss, new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) suggests something special for the 75th installment, aka the Quarter Quell. For the first time, the Tributes will be picked from the surviving victors in a sort of “Hunger Games: All-Stars” edition. In District 12, though, that’s a pretty shallow pool consisting of just Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch.
It’s all so unfair, even the effusive Effie (Elizabeth Banks) can barely muster any enthusiasm.
This being a sequel, everything is bigger — and deadlier. Plutarch has devised a Quarter Quell where the Tributes don’t just battle themselves, they’re forced to contend with invisible force fields, lightning strikes, floods, blood rain, savage baboons and poisonous fog.
Much like the original, “Catching Fire” is so much better than it needs to be. A lot of that comes down to the casting, starting with Lawrence. But it trickles down to “Hunger Games” veterans Sutherland, Harrelson and Stanley Tucci as Caesar, the purple-pompadoured TV host with a grin so toothy and wide, his face seems forever on the verge of splitting in half.
“I Am Legend” director Francis Lawrence — taking over from Gary Ross and working from a script credited to Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Michael deBruyn, the alias of “Little Miss Sunshine” Oscar winner Michael Arndt — carries on that tradition. Take brainy Tributes Beetee and Wiress.
There’s absolutely no need to cast Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer in those roles. But it makes “Catching Fire,” which devotes more time to developing the Tributes than its predecessor, all the more impressively ambitious for having done so.
It’s still a bit odd seeing Lawrence, in her first time onscreen as an Oscar winner, running around a jungle in a skintight bodysuit wrestling monkeys. But she brings a seasoned depth and plenty of attitude to Katniss.
For all the visual splendor and set design that makes the Capitol look like Lady Gaga’s cotillion, my favorite scene was one of the simplest.
Shortly after their grand chariot entrances, Katniss and Peeta share an elevator with Haymitch and District 7 wild child Johanna (Jena Malone), who wastes no time stripping out of her gown for the boys. Harrelson’s leery smirk will make you smile. But Lawrence’s awkward, skewed-jawed, get-me-outta-here stare of terror? Priceless.
There’s still the problem of Katniss’ quiver. One minute, she’s very clearly down to three arrows. The next, that quiver’s full again. It’s a problem that’s haunted movies going back to gunslingers’ never-emptying six-shooters, but the chambers of those revolvers were almost never that visible.
And, since there are two more installments on the way, “Catching Fire’s” ending might as well be a title card reading “To Be Continued.”
But those are minor quibbles in a rousing, gritty spectacle of a movie.
It’s still much too soon to know whether the upcoming two-part “Mockingjay” can continue this progression. Based on the improvement between “The Hunger Games” and “Catching Fire,” though, the odds are ever in its favor.
Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.