It would be easy to damn "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" with the faint praise of calling it a competent sequel, which it is. This blockbuster franchise picture can feel somewhat ho-hum and repetitive (but then so did some of the Harry Potter sequels). By giving audiences a bit more to chew on than its predecessor, "Catching Fire" compensates for its longueurs.
Adapted by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (under his pseudonym Michael deBruyn) from Suzanne Collins' YA novel, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" gets a new director in Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend"). But in true franchise fashion, the style and tone remain consistent with those established by Gary Ross in last year's "The Hunger Games."
For that matter, the plot has a certain "Potter"-y consistency. Crack archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, on her game as always) again finds herself pressed into the titular battle to the death after some mutual mooning with childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), firmly situating fellow competitor and romantic-triangle-completer Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in the friend zone (yeah, like that'll last), participating in mass-media pomp and circumstance, and sizing up the 22 other contestants looking to bump Peeta and her off.
Oh, yes, we have twists, the up-front one being that the players in the 75th anniversary (and third "Quarter Quell") Hunger Games are all "experienced killers" reaped from the pool of former winners. Correction, as per Katniss' alcoholic mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson): "There are survivors; there's no winners." Among these new players are hunky Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), bespectacled strategist Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and hotheaded Johanna Mason (Jena Malone).
They all must submit to the shenanigans devised by gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and that series of threats is best left unspoiled for those who haven't already read up on them. Suffice it to say the action plays out in a booby-trapped jungle island landscape (the film was shot in Oahu, Hawaii and Georgia).
But what used to be a narrative underpinning the totalitarian corruption from which bread and circuses are meant to divert attention has become superscript this time, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) so deeply concerned about Katniss' capacity to incite an uprising amongst the wretched, increasingly angry masses that his usual handling tactic of blackmail swiftly escalates to murder plans.
"Catching Fire" gives Katniss PTSD, but the primary zeitgeisty element here is the media satire, fronted by Stanley Tucci's maniacal TV host and Elizabeth Banks' vapid fashion plate (who chirps, "We must feed the monster!").
"Catching Fire" teases out comparisons to the life of a young Hollywood star: celebrity under a microscope and a certain amount of duress, having to keep acting whenever a camera is around. The story certainly riffs on studio-concocted relationships (and/or "bearding") in the tight-smile photo ops of Katniss and Peeta.
Haymitch reminds Katniss, "Your job is to be a distraction from what the real problems are," and of course "The Hunger Games" could be fairly accused of being what it satirizes, but it's not without a thought in its deadly little head.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language. Two hours, 26 minutes.