*** (out of four)
The end credits for “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” roll to the tune of “Atlas,” a new track from Coldplay. This does not match.
While the song practically tells your heart, “Continue at regular speed or perhaps nap,” director Francis Lawrence’s (“I Am Legend”) adaptation of the second book in Suzanne Collins’ addictive series reminds us that a 146-minute movie can be streamlined and deadly urgent. “Catching Fire” isn’t a bull's-eye, but its arrow never wavers.
Since Katniss (Jennifer “Totally Awesome” Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) won the 74th annual Hunger Games, their lives haven’t been daylong parades and late nights drinking out of trophies. He’s unhappy that Katniss’ affection exists largely on camera; she must endure a house call from President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who will kill the teen heroine if her defiance further motivates the districts of Panem to rise up against the Capitol. When one man shows support during a speech from the victors, it sparks a community-wide demonstration. It also gets the guy a bullet to the head.
On the plus side, schoolgirls everywhere are braiding their hair like Katniss, but it’s easier to own a trend when you’re being honored for something other than killing the teens who tried to kill you. Unless I missed that episode of “Friends.”
The duo isn’t happy to hear that the 75th fight-to-the-death competition will feature 24 previous victors, which means Katniss again separating herself from pal/hunting partner/new kissing buddy Gale (Liam Hemsworth). It also forces her, after being styled by tastemaker Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and tolerating Games host Caesar Flickerman (a hilarious, tan, toothy Stanley Tucci), to hope her archery skills and new allies (including Sam Claflin as golden god Finnick) can keep her alive long enough to save Peeta. There’s also an enemy with teeth fashioned into fangs and a violent arena mysteriously split into equal sections.
Where director Gary Ross fumbled the action in the otherwise solid “The Hunger Games,” Francis Lawrence turns up the intensity. “Catching Fire” is about fear vs. hope, and these elevated, adjusted Games ensure the former while the brewing revolution with Katniss as unknowing leader constitutes the latter. If only the film didn’t often feel rushed, diminishing tension both off the field, where Elizabeth Banks’ Effie looks even more like the head of Lady Gaga’s entourage, and in the arena. Katniss seems to have been sweating only a few minutes before complaining of dehydration and receiving Haymitch’s (Woody Harrelson) clue about where to find water. A quick-moving story can be great, but not at the cost of nuance.
The PG-13-rated film of course can’t emphasize the book’s brutality or nudity—Jena Malone, cast as Johanna Mason for her initials rather than her appearance, seems like a crazy nudist when stripping in an elevator, not a drop-dead gorgeous manipulator. No major harm done. “Catching Fire” better captures the darkness perpetuated by the Hunger Games, and Philip Seymour Hoffman effectively steps in for Wes Bentley as the head Gamemaker. Movie fans will enjoy; supporters of ridiculous beards will be disappointed.
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