"From now on, your job is to be a distraction, so people forget what the real problems are."
A couple of things to get out of the way before I start this review. One, I haven't read any of Suzanne Collins' books on which the films are based. Two, I rather enjoyed the first film The Hunger Games, despite director Gary Ross' affinity for shaking the camera during virtually every frame of the film. And three, against my better judgment I decided to go see the sequel Catching Fire on the day it opened, in spite of the fact that I knew the theater would be packed and there would be at least two sets of people in the audience that would annoy the shit out of me (both of these premonitions were correct). Having said all that, here's what else I can tell you. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the best genre sequel since The Dark Knight, and it's the one of the most batshit bananas blockbusters I've ever seen.
After the events of the 74th Hunger Games, survivors Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return to their home in District 12 before embarking on their victory tour. Katniss is haunted by the memories of what she did to survive the first game, and is having trouble maintaining the facade that she's in love with Peeta when her heart clearly belongs to Gale (Liam Hemsworth, who has the largest mouth I've ever seen on a human being). Katniss has bigger problems, however, because President Snow (Donald Sutherland) isn't happy with the fact that she has become a symbol of rebellion to the residents of the various other Districts. He wants her to sell herself as a product of the Capitol by threatening the lives of those she cherishes most.
The problem is, the uprising has already begun, in spite of Katniss' best efforts to play along. Snow charges new Hunger Games designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to devise a plan to force her into submission and crush the uprising before it begins. The plan they devise is that this year's 75th Hunger Games will feature a pool of participants culled from past victors of the games. And since the only other male survivor in District 12 is the drunk & unreliable Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Katniss & Peeta find themselves back in the thick of another fight for their lives.
What Catching Fire does so well is it builds on everything set up in the first film and improves it in every way possible. It is unfortunately the middle portion of a trilogy, meaning that it's almost all rising action and no climax, but it serves that purpose incredibly well. It builds and builds, raising the stakes, and while its ending is likely to feel like a total anti-climax to some (including the chatty teenager and her even chattier mother sitting behind me), it works like gangbusters in service of a story that's clearly just getting warmed up.
I was worried when the trailers first started popping up for this and it looked to an outsider like myself to be another "more of the same" sequel, I was overjoyed to find out that I was mistaken. While it almost purposefully borrows the same structure as the first film, it plays on the audience's familiarity with that plot by subverting your expectations and keeping you guessing the entire time. It's the kind of film that keeps you right where it wants you, thinking that you know what's coming and then shocking you when something different happens. It's a truly fantastic sequel in that regard, and the kind of subversion of form that I wish more storytellers embraced.
When the film finally gets to the 75th Hunger Games, all manner of crazy shit happens that I never expected in a relatively mainstream film. From killer fog and bloody rain to vicious baboons and birds that torment people by impersonating their loved ones, it's all so insane that it has to be seen to be believed. Thankfully new director Francis Lawrence has dispensed with the epileptic camerawork of the first film and given the games a much calmer look that aids the insanity going on in every frame. It's comforting to watch more classic compositions when it's in the service of showing just how bonkers everything going on truly is.
The film's biggest asset by a mile, however, is its cast. Lawrence is without a doubt the best actress in her age range currently working. There really is nothing she cannot do, and I just loved the hell out of her in this film. She manages to win the audience's pathos with little effort, and it's undeniable that Gary Ross' single greatest contribution to these films was casting her in the first place. It's the supporting cast that sells the whole endeavor, employing fantastic character actors like Sutherland, Hoffman and Harrelson and supplementing it with a bonkers Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, a seriously underused Lenny Kravitz, and of course Stanley Tucci, primping and preening all over the place like a purebred poodle at a dog show.
The new additions to the cast are fantastic as well, particularly Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as two of the more eccentric former tributes. Jena Malone and Sam Claflin are also great as the two most prominently featured former tributes. Hemsworth and Hutcherson are perfectly serviceable in their roles, though the love triangle they're involved in with Lawrence seems woefully underdeveloped and at times feels like clumsy attempts at fan service. The story could've been just as great without this forced romantic subplot, and I credit screenwriters Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt (using the name Michael deBruyn for some reason) for jettisoning enough of it to keep the focus firmly on the revolution plot.
I may regret this statement and it may read as heresy to some of you, but Catching Fire is every bit as good as The Empire Strikes Back. It's a faithful and epic second act that finds our characters at their lowest point imaginable and keeps their fates hanging in the balance until the story's resolution. While the studio smelled nothing but money and decided to split the third book into two films, thereby rendering this the unofficial middle of this trilogy, it doesn't lessen this film's impact as a great and true second act of a trilogy. I am now excited to see where this story and these films are headed and I cannot wait for the next film. Do yourself a favor and even if you weren't crazy about the first film, go see Catching Fire. It's everything you could've hoped it would be and more.
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]