‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ (2013) review: Changing the game, changing the odds

Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, left) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) scope out their competition in the Quarter Quell in a scene from "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." (Photo credit: Murray Close/MCT)

Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, left) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) scope out their competition in the Quarter Quell in a scene from “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” (Photo credit: Murray Close/MCT)

‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ expands, improves on its predecessor

Surrounded by frost- and snow-bitten nature, the world seems almost at peace. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, ever-present lethal bow in hand, surveys the land, scout-like in nature. Her intense eyes, hawk-like in their intensity. Her wardrobe, warm and comforting while she sneaks through the tundra. But this simple opening scene belies the terror, the impoverishment, the utter lack of hope blanketing the district just on the other side of the fence saying forbidding entry. This land, the epitome of what nature has to offer, it off-limits to the citizens of District 12, a town barely worthy of the term “shanty.”

This is how we’re re-introduced to the world of Panem and its authoritarian civilization, created in the ruins of a destroyed North America after a nightmarish war. In this no-man’s land, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) hunts for her family and loved ones, striking with her bow a lethality shrouded by beauty and hesitation.

This entrance of contradictions opens “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the follow-up to 2012’s “The Hunger Games” (see the review here) and the second in what is set to be a four-part series adapting Suzanne Collin’s feverishly popular book trilogy. It’s also one of a multitude of ways “Catching Fire” expanded and improved since its predecessor hit the screen: By adding some star power (from Philip Seymour Hoffman to Jeffrey Wright), well-done special effects, a new director (Francis Lawrence, replacing Gary Ross) and keeping the focus where it always needs to be — Katniss herself — “Catching Fire” lets little slow it down in its mission to be entertaining, satisfying and profitable.

As with “Hunger Games,” the heart and soul of “Catching Fire” rests with our fiery, deadly and conflicted heroine, Katniss. Thanks in large part to her atypical portrayal of a female hero, Katniss stokes an energy so palpable, so visceral, it’s hard not to become engaged in her story in this dystopian world.

Taking place shorty after the events of “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire” works to expand on the details and ready us for the next installments. (Think “New Moon” or the middle books for “Harry Potter.”) During the opening, we’re quickly reunited with Katniss; her beau, Gale (Liam Hemsworth); and the second victor from District 12, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The uneasy love triangle between the three is brought to the forefront as Katniss and Peeta have to embark on a victory tour to the other districts. This uneasiness plays a major role from here on out, complicating matters the way only love does.

The victory tour reminds us of the horrors we witnessed in the first movie during the 74th annual Hunger Games, during which a boy and a girl, 12 to 18, from each of Panem’s 12 districts are pitted against each to fight to the death. (Comparisons to the Japanese film “Battle Royale” in 2000 are generally apt.)

The point of the Games are to reinforce strict disclipince from the leaders of Panem, headed by President Snow (a wicked Donald Sutherland), in order to keep an angry and restless population in check. After the last Games, where Katniss devised a way for both her and Peeta to leave alive, ruining the point of the Games, dissent has been spreading through the districts, slowly but surely. Snow, who we all know Katniss is destined to overthrow, isn’t having any of this.

So Katniss and Snow battle it out, both using whatever skills and allies (and government abuses, in Snow’s case) they can wield. It’s a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, intriguing and gruesome throughout.

(Shout-outs to Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks’ characters — Haymitch and Effie, respectively — for excellent portrayals, especially Banks, who was finally able to give an actual performance and shows us Effie isn’t all just about that crazy hair.)

The film takes the highlights of the books and distills them to their basic premise. On their victory tour, Katniss and Peeta eventually find their way to the Capitol — a lush, disgusting gluttonous den of excess — and the other districts — most ravaged to some degree. The main event here is the Quarter Quell, a “celebration” for every 25 years of the Hunger Games. This year, breaking from tradition in order to corner Katniss, the Games will pit former victors against themselves in what’s billed as the ultimate death match.

The 24 past victors are transported to a simulated island, designed by the new gamemaster (Hoffman). Similar to the first film, Katniss and Peeta forge allies and friendships — notably with the pair Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Mags (Lynn Cohen) — as then battle fire-hot blood, poisonous fog, howling monkeys, birds that mimic the voices and screams of the combatants’ loved ones and each other. (That bird scene is intensely terrifying, with torturous screams shrieking from all directions.)

Even with all this chaos storming around us, it’s still Lawrence’s Katniss that connects to the story. Her character — more adult, more aware, less naive in her beliefs — is attractive for all the right reasons. Expression is the name of the game here, showing that director Lawrence is aware that having actor Lawrence portray and understand the horror of her situation only adds to the film’s emotion.

No one can claim “Catching Fire” is an exemplary or award-winning film, but it’s competent, exciting, engaging and, most importantly, a fine segue for the remaining films (to be split from the series’ final book, “Mockingjay”). It builds upon the strengths of “Hunger Games,” and it drops most of that movie’s weaknesses, which can be hit-or-miss for a lot of sequels. Thanks to some smarts and the indomitable Katniss, “Catching Fire” finds the odds in its favor.

Let’s just hope this fire keeps on catching.

Four fiery stars out of five.

“The Hunger Games” review

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