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By Shane M. Dallmann

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Here’s what we all already know: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) don’t get to rest on their laurels after co-winning the Hunger Games (much to the displeasure of the Capitol). Not only do they face a lifetime as Mentors ahead of them, but they first have to take a whirlwind tour of the Districts and follow the script exactly as written (which includes the professed love affair that saved their lives). But whether or not they stay “on book,” the people are NOT having it, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) must take drastic action to both discredit and destroy Katniss in front of her adoring, revolution-minded public. And what of Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the young man Katniss supposedly REALLY loves… not to mention her own family?

Remember, I DID like the first one. But CATCHING FIRE is a significant improvement on almost every level, beginning with its much darker tone. Things seemed bad enough in District Twelve the first time around, but in this case even the entrance to Victor’s Village (home of Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, among others) resembles nothing less than the gates of Auschwitz itself. The use of Nazi/Holocaust styled imagery may seem too obvious a choice for some, but it remains timeless and relevant and is carried off potently by director Francis Lawrence (no relation to the star), who had previously given us such fine-looking but essentially empty thrillers as CONSTANTINE and I AM LEGEND. More to the point, the overbearing menace is far more palpable and the violence all the more effective: to that end, Patrick St. Esprit makes an ominous cameo as the brutal Commander Thread, signalling that he’s far from done with this narrative even if he only gets one scene this time around.

None of the returning cast need prove anything; and Philip Seymour Hoffman makes another strong addition as the new Gamesmaster in town. As he explains to President Snow, it’s all about “move and counter move” as the players are manipulated: it’s certainly a far more acceptable alternative to merely killing Katniss outright, no? The buildup to the next annual Games accounts for more than half of the new film’s running time and is compelling throughout: and thankfully Stanley Tucci is still on hand as the smarmy emcee with whom this year’s Tributes (all past winners in a new twist on the rules) enjoy playing hell.

When I said this was an improvement on “almost” every level, you probably guessed where I was going. It’s true that everything building up to the launch of the Games themselves is good stuff (right up to the final seconds, in fact). But the Games? After the first movie, there was really no way to make them seem fresher and more exciting the second time around, despite all the new hazards. Still, CATCHING FIRE doesn’t fall flat on its face at this point–we’re going through the motions, true, but the routine is still perfectly watchable, as are some of the various new Tributes (particularly Jena Malone as Johanna: let it never be said that she didn’t know how to make a memorable first impression).

Naturally, this being the middle of a trilogy (though the third book, MOCKINGJAY, will follow the regrettable trend of the two-part movie finale), there’s not a satisfying ending to be had here, but at least the movie stops at a point where you really do want to see what happens next.

Don’t be put off by the “young adult” label. CATCHING FIRE is the one that should settle any doubts as to whether THE HUNGER GAMES has the “right” to be seen as its own animal in an admittedly crowded menagerie. If you saw the first one and disliked or dismissed it, you still might do well to see what they do with it here. And if you’ve avoided the entire HUNGER GAMES craze as a matter of principle, by this point I think you’re missing out. But you still really ought to start with the first one.

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