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'Catching Fire' is a better 'Hunger Games' than 'The Hunger Games'

The first "Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire" is an improvement over its predecessor in every way — and then it just stops dead in its tracks.

Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson once again prove that the costume design of "The Hunger Games" world is pretty delightful. Credit: Murray Close Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson once again prove that the costume design of "The Hunger Games" world is pretty delightful.
Credit: Murray Close

'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
Director: Francis Lawrence
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

Most of what happened in “The Hunger Games” happens in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” On the page — which is to say, in Suzanne Collins’ book — it’s pure rehash. Once again, teenage archery enthusiast Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) — growing up in a post-something dystopia where the government is heartless and everyone has funny names — is reluctantly whisked away on a parody of a press tour, then fights to the death inside a tricked-out dome. The difference is slight: Instead of kids, Katniss plus boring nice guy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) fight former “Hunger Game” champs. Many of them are adults (like Jeffrey Wright!) and one of them is Miranda’s judgmental older nanny from “Sex and the City” (Lynn Cohen).

But the first “Hunger Games” was a bit of a botch — mannered, stiff and distractingly non-gory. A second film is a second chance to do it right. And as it happens, “Catching Fire” is a better “Hunger Games” than “The Hunger Games,” as well as a better “Catching Fire” than the book.

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The first film’s director, Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”), is good with American nostalgia but at sea with Collins’ world. He had no feel for the Ken Russell flamboyance of the Capitol, and definitely no feel for action. New boss Francis Lawrence is no master; he made the moderately distinguished “Constantine” and “I Am Legend,” plus “Water for Elephants.” But he knows his way around an action scene without getting tripped up, as Ross did.

The second film is considerably less violent, which is oddly a good thing. Once again it takes more than half the film to get Katniss et al inside the arena, this time a more tropical world plagued by poisonous fog, angry baboons and a lack of drinkable water. But the players are encouraged to form packs and stick together. And if that means less violence, it also means less painfully awkward sanitized-for-young-adults PG-13 violence.

Everything’s better this time. Lawrence, slightly uncomfortable in the first one, is given more to do. Elizabeth Banks, as obliviously peppy escort Effie Trinket, gets unexpected hints of humanity, her spirits crumbling as the downtrodden lower districts begin revolting. Then again, like the first, it can be a tease. A fearsome Hunger Gamer who chiseled her teeth into fangs is memorably introduced, then gets to do precisely nada. And the odd presence of Oscar-winning genius Philip Seymour Hoffman (who wins this film’s most impressively strained “futuristic” name: Plutarch Heavensbee) is too obviously a plant for future installments.

The abrupt ending is a problem, too. “Catching Fire” builds up a head of steam, and at only a few points does it feel its ridiculous 148-minute length. And then it just stops. Middle episodes in trilogies are by nature put in an undesirable position, but the best — “Empire Strikes Back” being the high watermark — find a strong note to close on before the action resumes in the future. This just shrugs and says, “See you in a year!” Nuts to that.

 
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