This Girl is on Fire: "Catching Fire" scores a powerfully entertaining bull's-eye

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
146 min., rated PG-13.

The politically charged, warm-blooded, and tough-enough big-screen adaptations of Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy are looking to be more than just another flash-in-the-pan YA-targeted franchise. 2012's "The Hunger Games" laid the groundwork, economically setting up a dystopian future that holds an annual televised blood-sport as punishment for the common people's rebellion and thought-provokingly commenting on a world dominated by a totalitarian government, and gave us a compellingly strong but vulnerable heroine in Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). With "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," it's a rare instance when a sequel goes the bigger-and-better route without losing its emotional weight and doesn't feel like a cash-in by a greedy studio. Where its predecessor's kid-on-kid violence was also restricted by the PG-13 rating without softening it too much and often shot too frenetically, this second installment mostly rights those small wrongs, magnifies its scope, and packs the desired punch.

Having won the 74th Hunger Games as the first pair of co-victors in history, 17-year-olds Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are now living with more money than they've ever had in District 12. As Katniss defied the Capitol by making both of them survivors, they must continue to smile for the cameras as faux-lovers on their victory tour to the other districts. Already suffering from moments of post-traumatic stress, Katniss deals with the unconvinced President Snow (Donald Sutherland). He's conniving a new wrinkle with elusive game designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and sees Katniss as a threat of defiance able to lead a revolution. As the 75th Annual Hunger Games, or the Quarter Quell as it's called, closes in, Katniss and Peeta are both chosen at The Reaping and are horrified to learn they'll be competing against experienced victors. Their coach, booze-addled Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), gives them advice: align with the more approachable and slightly less cunning misfits.

Charged with upping the ante a bit and expressing the political subtext even more, director Francis Lawrence (2011's "Water for Elephants")no relation to Jenniferhas been passed the torch by the original's director (Gary Ross), along with him a new team of screenwriters, Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire") and Michael DeBruyn ("Little Miss Sunshine"). Made with nearly twice the budget of its precursor, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" takes 80-odd minutes to get to the titular Hunger Games but is never less than involving before the tributes' survival-of-the-fittest fight. The stakes are given a lift, not only for the fates of best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and his family, Peeta's family, and Katniss' mother and sister, but for all of Panem. The emotional resonance is even thickerKatniss paying respects to the late Rue's family during the victory tour is heartbreaking and, after one brave, mockingjay-whistling man gives her the three-finger salute, tragic. And once the film gets to the tropical-island arena, it is well worth the wait. Like before, once Katniss is launched in that glass tube up to the arena next to all of her fellow tributes, the building of dread is undeniable. All revved up with exciting menace and imagination, the life-or-death situations include an electric force field, a creeping poisonous fog, vicious mandrills, and a floating merry-go-round on a saltwater lake. 

Locked into the physically and emotionally fearless role of Katniss, Lawrence is, once again, the story's MVP, fierce as ever and even more layered, being caught between survival and rebellion. Every emotion the actress feels is palpably read on her face. As Peeta, Hutcherson is capably sweet and even more appealing here, and Hemsworth is a bit less of an afterthought than he was in the first film as Gale. The love triangle exists, but it never overshadows Katniss' bigger problems. Of the other returnees most worth mentioning, Elizabeth Banks has a few moments to shed the shallow facade, being able to convey more humanity as the perky, fabulously coiffed District 12 chaperone Effie Trinket, and a hilariously over-the-top Stanley Tucci gets to flash off his blindingly white choppers and purple hair as TV host Caesar Flickerman. Joining the cast to succeed Wes Bentley's Seneca Cane, Hoffman (with no flamboyant get-up to overshadow his performance) is chilling and ambiguous as the new game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee whose motivations will surely become quite clear in the next film. New tributes are introducedthe preening, charismatic Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin); elderly mute Mags (Lynn Cohen); and kooky brains-over-brawn couple Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer)and, of course, not all of them are safe. Jena Malone, especially, has a lot of feisty fun and makes an impression as the short-tempered, axe-wielding Johanna Mason.

As this trilogy is designed to have its third film, "Mockingjay," separated into halves, like Parts 1 and 2 of "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the film doesn't exactly stand as its own entity, which is kind of unfair to say but still true. There is, thankfully, no overt recap of the first film being spoonfed to us, but, such is the case with middle installments, there isn't really an endgame. What's given here is a classic cliff-hanger, ending abruptly midstream just before we see the fire in Katniss' eyes, but, boy, it is a fantastically internal final shot. Want more? Waiting is a virtue. That minor misgiving aside, Trish Summerville's costumes, Philip Messina's production design, and Larry Dias' set decoration are all aces, and the special effects even more confident than before (Katniss' flaming dress is less cheesy on the second try). Cinematographer Jo Willems (2011's "Limitless") also corrects the chaotic camera work, intensifying the action with more fluidity. As a whole, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is an enthralling, fleetly paced, well-oiled machine that delivers plenty and then promises even bigger things to come. It gives much more to think about than some teen mortal-immortal romance. This trilogy is going places.

Grade: A -