‘Catching Fire’ has long fuse to burn before igniting

Jennifer Lawrence stars in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."
November 30, 2013

Honesty time. I remember reviewing the first “Hunger Games.” I remember enjoying it (most notably Jennifer Lawrence’s fierce performance) and commending it for solidifying a strong female lead in a time dominated by male superhero machismo.

But aside from the general plot, there was little I could recall, evident when I sat down to rewatch it in preparation for this review. A sample dialogue between my wife and I:

Wife: “Wait. How did the guy from District 12 know what Katniss….”

Me: (interrupting): “I don’t remember.”

Wife: “Why didn’t she just ki …”

Me: (interrupting): “I can’t recall.”

Wife: “You did see this only about a year ago, right?”

I can honestly say that with “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” Katniss and company have left a much deeper impression for all the right reasons. Stronger, darker and technically more accomplished, “Catching Fire” is a solid entry and a welcome relief to the dark years of “Twilight”-induced cinematic drought.

Following the lucrative fiction from author Suzanne Collins, “Catching Fire” follows the next novel in the franchise, where Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is tormented by winning the 74th Hunger Games (at the expense of others’ lives), yet her win has empowered the poverty-stricken masses as they start to gain confidence to rebel within their districts.

This unnerves the iron-fisted President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland), who pays Katniss a personal visit, telling her to maintain her fictitious romantic relationship with fellow winner Peeta (played by Josh Hutcherson), and align herself with him in an effort to keep citizens distracted and keep thoughts of revolution at bay.

Snow resorts to even more drastic measures with the assistance of Plutarch Heavensbee (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), the games’ programmer, to re-enlist all the past winners to put their lives on the line once again.

Starting slowly, “Catching Fire” has a long fuse to burn before igniting. The landscape is as bleak and gray as the tone, as the residents begin to question their oppressive way of life. But this allows us to see bonds strengthen or further demonstrates the facade of other bonds (like the one between Katniss and Peeta).

Where Lawrence was a wild card in the intial “Hunger,” she’s since firmly established herself as a bona fide actor with range to spare, and here director Francis Lawrence (previously known for the almost-good “I am Legend” and the dreadfully dull “Water for Elephants”) lets her fly. She’s dealing with struggles on every level - physical, emotional, psychological - and it’s starting to show. Lawrence deftly balances pain, determination, snark, athleticism and passion in her portrayal, making Katniss one of the more realistic heroines to grace the screen in a while.

Sutherland is still suitably menacing, but the fact that resistance to his regime is rising makes his Snow all the more dangerous as the time ticks away. The second half of the film also introduces us to a number of colorful contestants, including the always-awesome Jeffrey Wright, the always-unpredictable Amanda Plummer, and a spunky Jena Malone as former winner Johanna Mason.

The only issue that still lingers for me (and one of the few things I can recall from the first film) is the cartoonish Caesar Flickerman (played to the hilt by Stanley Tucci) and Effie Trinkett (played by Elizabeth Banks). Both Tucci and Banks are fine actors, but I can’t help feel they were wedged in from another movie, and their presence usually brings things to an awkward pause.

“Catching Fire” concludes as a cliffhanger, but one in which we can hear the faint pounding of war drums growing louder, and we feel Katniss’ belly rumble in as she prepares for the final chapters of “The Hunger Games.”

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