"Hunger Games: Catching Fire" – like its hero Katniss with her trusty bow and arrow – hits all its marks. Fans of Suzanne Collins' wildly successful young adult trilogy – about a teenage girl in a dystopic future who sets off a revolution just by staying alive – will not be disappointed.
They won't be surprised much either, as the film, clocking in at nearly two and half hours, covers a massive amount of the novel's narrative ground, but offers little else. It brushes over the book's many dimensions – a political parable of socio-economic disparity, a clever critique of contemporary reality TV culture, a soapy teenage love triangle. "Catching Fire" never digs deep enough to bring to light anything new to them. The film, perhaps inevitably as the middle installation, is all plot, plot, plot – lacking the intriguing set up of the franchise's opener and the resolution of its closing installment (which will be broken up into two films). And while that certainly doesn't retract from its entertainment value – which is buttressed by an even glossier vision and production value than the first – "Catching Fire" still feels like a stepping stone that doesn't stand up as its own offering.
"Catching Fire" jumps in with little explanation of what happened in its precursor, which came out last year. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has perturbed President Snow (Donald Sutherland) by outwitting the Hunger Games, a once year nationally televised fight-to-the death tournament in which children – or "tributes" as they're called – are the contestants. Her act of pretending to fall love in a fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) saved both their lives while inspiring revolutionary sentiments among Panem's impoverished masses. Now, to assuage Snow, she and Peeta must maintain their celebrity romance spectacle, which Snow hopes will cool the political fires she ignited.
It doesn't. And the ante of their little charade gets upped quite a bit when Snow, concocting a scheme with the new Game maker, Plutarch (Phillip Seymour), will require the veteran victors to return to duke it out again in the Hunger Games arena as a special celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Games in what the schemers think is a sure-fire way to snuff out Katniss and her little revolution for good.
The first act – Katniss and Peeta's trip from their desperately poor outlying district to the glitzy capital – drags on, despite the high-speed train they're taking. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), their washed out mentor; Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) their chipper but clueless handler; and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), Panem's very own Ryan Seacrest, are all back, playing their familiar but albeit amusing role as humorous adornments to otherwise dark premise of the Games.
The film picks up once we meet the fresh faces in "Catching Fire," namely the other victors competing in this new round of games, who include a cocky child Hunger Games star all grown up (Sam Claflin), the tempestuous rabble-rouser (Jena Malone) and an eccentric duo of brainiacs (Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer).
Once the heroes finally make it into the arena, "Catching Fire" gets to flex its blockbuster budget muscle – readers will be delighted to see Collins' imaginative gauntlet brought to life and strangers to the series will perhaps be even more impressed with its intricacies. Of course, that is quickly trumped by all the killing that goes on there, though "Catching Fire" keeps the worst of the violence off screen.
Lawrence plays her Katniss fluctuating between stubborn stoicism and brute, emotional outbursts. Both Peeta and Gale do little more than pine for Katniss, but Gale at least shows shades of revolutionary anger.
All in all, "Catching Fire" takes few risks aside from the $130 million poured into the second installment. In content, it caters to the trilogy's fans, staying loyal to the book. In format, it has all the CGI pomp and circumstance that gives it the look and feel of tent-pole crowd pleaser. Director Francis Lawrence brought his A-game in bringing the film to the screen, particularly in the performances he draws from his actors. However, as a film "Catching Fire" brings little more than this execution, and whatever fire it ignites smolders out soon after the closing credits.