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Suzanne Collins’ second bestselling novel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has been adapted for the screen by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (as Michael deBruyn, Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3) with Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants) taking over the franchise reigns from Gary Ross. This thrilling, emotional and all-round superior sequel further develops the fascinating world of Panem and the narrative’s primary themes and situates our brave heroine Katniss Everdeen (portrayed by Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence, the girl on fire literally) within a politically-charged period of Panem’s history where she finds herself once again a beacon of hope for civilians and unwillingly assigned a vital role in the shaping of their future. This is again dependent on her survival through the 75th Annual Hunger Games.

Catching Fire commences with Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) at home in District 12. On the eve of their televised and celebrated Victory Tour throughout the districts, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) visits Katniss and challenges her to continue to convince Panem that her defiance in the 74th Games was out of love for Peeta and not with the intention to inspire rebellion against the Capitol and the barbaric annual event. The lives of her family, and the man who has truly captured her heart, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), are threatened if she refuses compliance.

When Snow senses an uprising, despite Katniss’ best attempts to protect her family, he hires master game designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as any ally, who suggests they add a new rule for the Games honouring the Third Quarter Quell – that contestants be reaped from the existing pool of victors. Katniss and Peeta find themselves once again representing District 12, aligned against some disgruntled (some highly skilled, others aging) former victors. With Panem on the brink of rebellion and the Capitol losing sight of the power they have long presided over, will their primary means at keeping order be the key to their undoing?

The games themselves are once again intense and exciting – the premise is troubling, but this time it is less about kids killing each other, but about the forced elimination of a perceived threat, and how these individuals respond to that exploitation – and the arena is imaginative and of a much larger scale. The tension, though, is built through the core characters – credible people that we care about, who make decisions under pressure that we admire. The emotional centre of this film is in fact a romance, but what a complex and compelling one it is. What Katniss has to do for the sake of Gale and her family is not at all kind to Peeta, and that tortures her. But, as Peeta steps up big time through the games, we see how much Katniss’ needs him by her side, and perhaps there are feelings there beyond those she has been faking for the cameras. I am genuinely intrigued to see where this goes.

I was holding my breath as Katniss broke the surface of the arena – the first dash for weapons so well done - and the obstacles (enveloping poisonous gas and angry monkeys in addition to her fellow contestants) emerge frequently. One set piece resembles a giant Roman arena, while a neon-lit party in the gluttonous Capitol and Caesar Flickerman’s (Stanley Tucci) talk show have eye-popping vibrancy in architecture and costume. Catching Fire has better pacing and is also far more competently edited and photographed than the preceding instalment. One of the primary criticisms I had with The Hunger Games was the erratic combat photography, and there are no such qualms returning here. Plenty of space is given to the claustrophobic forest-set action sequences. Scale is given to the game arena, but Katniss’ emotional strain is essential to our understanding of her personal struggle, and Lawrence understands that his star’s face is an emotive one.

Lawrence is amazingly versatile again. Her skills seem to have no limits. Francis Lawrence has also drawn better performances out of Hemsworth and Hutcherson too. The supporting players, who are all perfectly cast, provide plenty of entertainment too. In addition to Sutherland and Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz reprise their eccentric characters, while Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin and a scene-stealing Jena Malone (wait for her!) are the memorable newcomers.

The audience (like Katniss) is never sure who is trustworthy, and allegiances are influenced by, and change within, the game environment. There are some big twists – the announcement of the winners-as-tribute is a gut-wrenching revelation, while the final reveals will surely catch the uninitiated unawares.

We are left with many more questions as we enter the final instalments (Mockingjay reportedly will be split in two feature films), and with Catching Fire improving on the already-solid foundation film I, an uninitiated reader, have now become an admirer of this fantastic franchise and eagerly await the continuation.

[rating=4]

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22