The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Catching Fire) does almost everything right. With additions of Francis Lawrence behind the lens, Oscar winners Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt adapting Suzanne Collins' international best seller and a host of wonderful talent such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci (to name a few) it ensures that the package has the right ingredients for success. However, let’s not forget one thing; this is Katniss' story and casting Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence has all but guaranteed the enduring success of the franchise.
It's a year since Panem's 74th Hunger Games and the victorious District 12 team Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are preparing for their obligatory promotional tour schedule. In a private audience with President Snow (Sutherland), Katniss is told that she must convince the public that her defiance was driven by her love for Peeta and not rebellion. As the districts stir and the presence of the 'girl on fire' ignites hope, new game master Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) decides that a wrinkle in the rules of the games will allow a special kind of 75th anniversary edition of the games called the Quarter Quell; which means the tributes will be sourced from existing victors.
Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants, Constantine) does a great job of fleshing out the world of Panem, not possible with the much lower budget of the first Hunger Games film. The Capitol looks far less like a clone (no pun intended) of one of cities from a Star Wars prequel and far more like some kind of industrialised futuristic Rome, decadence is in the very fabric the society. The fashion is bigger, the spectacle especially some great staged interactions with Peeta and Katniss whilst they're still in their home district, filmed to placate the masses are just great. The violence too, without slipping into gratuity or inaccessibility for the target audience, is heightened significantly.
Now just prior to writing this review I marvelled at the fact that the sequel had brought the talent of Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire)but in looking into his partner Michael deBruyn I was pleasantly stunned to learn that deBruyn is none other than Oscar winning scribe Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine). This dynamic duo, do a fantastic job of condensing the epic scale of the books into wonderful character defining interactions for the performers to wrangle with. Unfortunately, the pace gets glacial in the stitches between the major scenes. For a time they're telegraphing the inevitable bait and switch with the games and showing Peeta and Katniss' inciting fierce responses from all over Panem. In those moments the intended emphasis slips into repetitiousness.
Lawrence just dominates this entire film. She's a fully realised woman, magnificent in conveying the subsurface battle for her heart and mind. Whether it's tenderness, fear, pain, adoration — you're riding every heart pounding minute of this heroine on the rise. She finds a way to make indecision and lack of certainty compelling instead of frustrating.
The returning support cast are given far more to do in Catching Fire. Sutherland is paternal in his approach. He's the grandfather that's always happy until you see that menacing glint in his sapphire eyes. Tucci's Caesar Flickerman the ultimate piss-take of the overexcited variety show host. It is like Graham Norton and Matt Dillon's teeth had a baby and gave it the biggest show in the world. His forced joviality whips you into the same frenzy as the audience in the Capital. Harrelson's Haymitch Abernathy is still the drunken angel on Katniss and Peeta's shoulder; and he is far wilier that his drunkenness would have you believe. And this time the emphasis on the decadence of the Capital sees Lenny Kravitz's Cinna get a bigger role, which just involves him being Lenny Kravitz with gold eye shadow. However, his closeness with Katniss makes him a target and you see that the rare group close to our hero is in constant danger.
Hoffman is a great addition to the cast whose lack of theatricality in his presentation makes him all the more ominous. The malice that he can conjure by slightly modifying the emphasis on one of his concise sentences is just terrific. Hoffman to outwardly is completely Zen, yet you can almost see the cogs turning in his eyes. Jena Malone as former victor Johanna Mason brings the necessary sexy bad ass into the mix. The axe wielding firecracker is a good foil for Katniss' restraint. Sam Claflin's Finnick Odair, the youngest ever winner of the games, feels like he's taking cues from the book of Han Solo. He's a manipulative, cocksure, scoundrel whose been embedded trading secrets in the Capitol.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire achieves what every sequel should strive for - a film that surpasses its predecessor in every way.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (as Michael deBruyn)
From the novel "Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, Paula Malcomson, Willow Shields, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Stef Dawson,Toby Jones, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.