‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ burns bright | 3 stars

Updated: 2013-11-21T19:26:11Z


Special to The Star

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” takes a while to get going. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially in a movie whose teenage heroine has just survived a fight to the death.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has a wrenching case of PTSD, and her mental state is a key plot point, as she discovers that depression and nightmares are the least of her problems. This makes “Catching Fire” an even darker, grittier film than 2012’s “The Hunger Games,” as it builds slowly to its exciting conclusion and deftly sets up the next installment in the series.

As Katniss and fellow victor/fake boyfriend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) tour the districts of their oppressive country, they are expected to smile and read prepared statements, while keeping up the star-crossed-lovers ruse that got them through the first movie’s deadly “game.”

Katniss is under particular pressure — her apparent defiance has inspired rebellion in several districts, and the menacing President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has threatened to kill her friends and family if she doesn’t make a convincing government cheerleader. Peeta plays his part well enough, but Katniss is too fiercely, impulsively humane to keep her mouth shut.

Since murdering her outright would make the uprisings worse, Snow uses a loophole in the Hunger Games rules to bring previous winners from each district back to the arena. That guarantees a return visit for Katniss, and a chance to show the rabble that even these popular heroes are under the Capitol’s thumb.

Director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”) seems reluctant to omit anything from Suzanne Collins’ novel, and this page-to-screen devotion does help build atmosphere and emotional connections. It also drags viewers through scenes that tell us what we already know and show us what we’ve already seen.

It gets frustrating, although it will impress purists who can’t stand to see anything from the book left out. It should also please eye candy aficionados, who are treated to even more expensive sets, costumes and special effects. They look great, even when the movie lingers on them for what seems like an eternity.

Once Katniss and her fellow tributes enter the arena, “Catching Fire” lives up to its title, keeping the audience as breathlessly off-balance as the characters are. The growing political undercurrents are there, too, as Snow and new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) find sadistic and creative ways to crush the resistance.

The cast remains perfect, with returning co-stars like Woody Harrelson (born to play alcoholic mentor Haymitch) and Sutherland, who can sit quietly at a desk and still be terrifying. Heavensbee is introduced as a rather vague character, but Hoffman adds layers that pay off by the end.

Brit Sam Claflin (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) makes an appropriately hunky Finnick Odair, Katniss’ trident-wielding rival. And a range of supporting actors (including Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer) stand out as the veteran tributes.

But it’s Oscar-winner Lawrence who remains the steady center of the “Hunger Games” franchise. At the advanced age of 23, the actress has established herself as one of the strongest, most reliable stars in Hollywood. The final shot of “Catching Fire” simply focuses on her face, and the emotions she conveys in those few seconds let everyone know that Katniss is ready for whatever comes next. Her fans will be, too.

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