Lawrence and Lawrence prove to be winning team, and like Panem itself, this franchise is just now catching fire.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire transports us back to the near-future world of Panem and the saga of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). At the end of the first film, Katniss and her teammate/love interest, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), made groundbreaking history by defying the rules of the deadly Hunger Games to emerge as the first-ever dual victors of the tournament. Now living in luxury within the dystopian District 12, all would seem well for Katniss and those close to her; but in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

The tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has not forgotten Katniss’s open defiance – nor will he ignore the tiny spark of hope Katniss and Peeta have ignited amongst the downtrodden citizens of the various districts. Under the advisement of new game master Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), President Snow coerces Katniss and Peeta to use their victory tour as a propaganda campaign, all while hatching a truly insidious plan to use the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games to get rid of the famed District 12 lovers – and other Hunger Games victors who may stand in the way of the capitol.

The first Hunger Games was an inspired (if flawed) adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s bestselling novel; however, with a bigger budget and a switch in directorial approach (Seabiscuit‘s Gary Ross being replaced by Constantine director Francis Lawrence), the result is a bigger and better blockbuster movie experience. Everything a sequel should be.

Former music video director Francis Lawrence is known for delivering vividly-realized and solid movie adaptations (Constantine, I Am LegendWater for Elephants) but it’s fair to say that his work has been under-appreciated, thus far. That trend will officially change with this film. As if adhering to a playbook that was drawn from every negative comment about the first film, Lawrence does major technical course-correction in just about every area possible. First and foremost: gone is the hand-held “shaky cam” perspective, replaced by more traditional mis-en-scene framing and blocking (thank god for steady-cam shots at medium distances).

The set pieces are better, the cinematography and overall tone feel more grounded and balanced – something the first film failed at, while trying to bring a world of 19th century poverty, futuristic splendor and a video game-style death arena all together in one world. Simply put: Lawrence nails it on all fronts and creates cohesiveness where the first film had disparity – though again, obviously a bigger budget helps when it comes to visual effects and such…

Liam Hemsworth in ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’

Having Oscar-winning writers penning your script also makes a big difference, and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) certainly live up to their prestige. Catching Fire‘s first half is a  compelling and even deeply touching elevation of Collins’s material; free of the simple survival tale of the first installment (and all its Battle Royal comparisons), Arndt and Beaufoy go right to the heart of the story – Katniss’s hardline survival instinct giving way to realization of the worldly issues surrounding her – creating sequences and scenes that push the drama to heights one does not expect from this sort of genre fare.

There is more wit, spacial awareness and movement – and most importantly, this time around the writers make smart use of a film’s widened perspective, giving us scenes the book never did (but probably should have), that nonetheless feel natural and logical in the narrative of a film. That understanding and confidence – that film is not the same as book – makes all the difference. There are plenty of Easter eggs and head nods for hardcore fans, but this is first and foremost treated as a movie experience, and is that much better for it.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Woody Harrelson in ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’

The downside is that this time around, the second half of the movie (the actual death tournament) pales in comparison to the political drama that preceded it, causing time to feel long (and at nearly 2.5 hours, it can feel very long) and interest to wane. This is not entirely the fault of the screenwriters, however; Catching Fire is the middling installment of a three-book set, and like so many middling chapters, its climatic hook is actually disguise for an unresolved narrative.

In this film, the Hunger Games feel more like a Hunger Games scrimmage, before the intricate and subtly woven story dumps things at a cliffhanger that feels like it was torn straight from The Matrix Reloaded. Still, even with a lukewarm finish, Catching Fire successfully sets the stage for the two-part finale to come, selling the audience on the political theater that is slowly but surely becoming the dominant story thread of the series. Less video game gimmick, more earnest character study and socio-political commentary; this film pays the toll for crossing that bridge.

Jennifer Lawrence in ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’

Jennifer Lawrence now has blockbuster franchise filmmaking under her belt (and an Oscar, to boot), and she is clearly more at ease in the skin of the iconic Katniss Everdeen – this time getting some much deeper and complicated character material to work with (psychological trauma, raw panic, moral and philosophical quandary) – all of which she knocks out, seemingly effortlessly. By her side is Hutcherson as Peeta, trusty as ever with his boy-next-door charm, while Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is sure to give young ladies (or older ones, who knows) the exact kind of heart0-swell they paid for.

Other returning players like Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci and Tobi Jones are equally settled into their roles, and can therefore have more ownership and fun with their performances. Lenny Kravitz’ Cinna makes a brief (but effective) appearance as well. The gang is back together and better than ever.

Jeffrey Wright in ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’

Catching Fire no doubt benefits from shedding the fresh-faced child actor roster in favor of a more adult lineup of good character actors in supporting roles. Jeffrey Wright (Boardwalk Empire), Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction), Lynn Cohen (Damages) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (The Master) – all of them are strong in their own right, and all of them are welcome additions that bring quality acting to ground a lot of the more fantastical and silly elements of the film. Even the fresher faces of Sam Caflin (Snow White and the Huntsmen) and Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) are well-suited to their respective roles of fan-favorite characters Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason. With strong support and returning vets working at top form, Catching Fire delivers as much on the human level as it does the spectacle level.

In the end, this is a much-improved sequel whose only real drawback is that it’s a middle chapter with a somewhat thin payoff – but that’s often the nature of the beast in a post-Empire Strikes Back world. Thankfully there’s more substance to care about, characters who are easier to care about, and a better-constructed world to draw us in. Lawrence and Lawrence prove to be winning team, and like Panem itself, this franchise is just now catching fire.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is now in theaters. It is 146 minutes long, and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.

Want to discuss the movie without SPOILING it for others? Go to our Catching Fire Spoilers Discussion. The Screen Rant editors will also be discussing the film – check out the latest episode(s) of our Screen Rant Underground Podcast.

Want to know more about the next film in the series? Check out our coverage of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay

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Our Rating:

4 out of 5

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