The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is proof that a popcorn flick doesn't have to be dumbed down to be an effective and entertaining film. With Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants, I Am Legend) at the helm in place of Gary Ross, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn't so much a better film as its predecessor as it is simply a more settled and grounded one. Despite the inherent challenges of essentially being a "bridge" film between The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (which, per the current trend, will be divided into two films), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is both an exciting action flick and an intelligent, thought-provoking and more passionate film.
While Lawrence's cinematic efforts have frequently left me dissatisfied and feeling strangely detached, he's more than proven himself able as a director in both his television and music video efforts. There are moments in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire where that dissatisfaction shows up again, particularly in scenes that should register far more emotionally than they do. For the most part, however, Lawrence manages to expertly guide Catching Fire with a pulsating rhythm and with perhaps an even greater eye for the dramatic core within this story about integrity, survival and truth.
There may be no actress more equipped to tell this story than Jennifer Lawrence, an actress whose star continues to soar precisely because she seems completely unwilling to buy into her own stardom. I'm pretty sure that Jennifer Lawrence the actress hasn't had to kill anybody along her way to Hollywood's upper echelon of actresses, but it's her same commitment to authenticity, truth and shooting a straight arrow that likely makes able to take what could have so easily been a bubblegum character and breathe such wondrous life into her.
The film opens with Katniss (Lawrence) crouched over with bow in hand and eyeing everything carefully. She has won the previous year's Hunger Games, and she and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are assigned the task of traveling across the nation of Panem on a victory tour of sorts. Of course, it's a victory tour that doesn't necessarily feel like a victory tour for Katniss ... She has, after all, had to kill people to achieve victory and even looking into her eyes one can feel the grief inside her over those actions. She is now conflicted between her conscience and the government symbol she has become and, as well, she must present a facade that creates a "love" between she and Peeta that is not part of the authentic equation.
The Hunger Games was a good film, but it also benefited greatly from the freshness of its material and the lack of certainty over exactly how effectively Lawrence would personify Katniss. Ross's directorial style amped up the volume on the film, sometimes at the expense of the thoughts behind the actions and the emotions and passion that guided it all. Francis Lawrence seems far more in touch with that passion and, as well, he's far more willing to allow scenes to thoughtfully linger. As a result, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is for the most part a slower paced and more driven film than its predecessor.
There are scenes where this approach works beautifully, but there are also scenes where you can't help but wish that Lawrence would loosen the reins and allow everything to go hog wild.
Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci) is even funnier this time around, while Elizabeth Banks's Effie Trinket is a touch more human and satisfying. As President Snow, Donald Sutherland is even more twisted this time around while Philip Seymour Hoffman is amazingly complex as new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee.
Unlike a certain other trilogy, that one involving wolves and vampires or zombies or something like that, The Hunger Games handles even its more traditional young adult elements rather nicely including that more emotionally resonant love triangle element involving Peeta and Katniss and Gayle (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss's best friend. Their responses feel genuine and honest and practical and also grounded deeply within the reality of their individual and collective situations.
It goes without saying, even if you haven't read the novels upon which these films are based, that there will be another game this time around. Participants this time around include Peeta, the athletic Finnick (Sam Claflin), the loner Johanna (Jena Malone), and the nerd Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and others. There is much more at stake this time around for Katniss, and Lawrence ever so subtly transitions the character from simple action star to an emotionally complex and conscience-driven young woman who also happens to be, yes, quite the action star.
Working from a script by Oscar winners Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), Lawrence has managed to make a film that makes you actually think that dividing the final film into two actually makes sense. As of now, Francis Lawrence is scheduled to helm both films that are currently in production.
In addition to her confidence and prowess, Lawrence beautifully embodies all of Katniss's frailties and more humane moments. In only a few scenes, Woody Harrelson continues his fine body of work as of late while Josh Hutcherson continues to prove naysayers wrong about his casting as Peeta. It's a true joy to see Jena Malone, a vastly underrated actress, have an opportunity to shine in a high visibility film and Sam Claflin also does quite the nice job here. Lynn Cohen also is rock solid as Mags, the eldest participant in the games.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn't a masterpiece, but it certainly is an entertaining and thought-provoking film that proves we have a right to expect much more from even a good old-fashioned Hollywood popcorn flick.
Mockingjay, bring it on.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic