The “Hunger Games” is back, and it’s even better than before.
“Catching Fire,” the second film in the series based on Suzanne Collins’s best-selling novels, picks up where the first left off and expands on the characters and the themes.
Heroic teen Katniss Everdeen and lovestruck Peeta Mellark have returned to downtrodden District 12, champions of the barbaric Hunger Games, the government-sponsored death match between two dozen randomly chosen young people.
All is not well, however. The people of the district are living in poverty, and the scheming president (Donald Sutherland) isn’t pleased with the way that Katniss beat the system in the first film and became a national symbol of rebellion.
Peeta and Katniss are sent on a victory tour of dystopian Panem’s 12 districts, in hopes of soothing the masses. Instead, they get the people more riled up than ever, and the president figures out a way to throw the duo back into the arena.
Philip Seymour Hoffman proves to be a nice addition to the series as the devious new gamemaker, Plutarch, who stages an all-star version of the Hunger Games, like a very special season of “Survivor,” with every contestant a former winner.
“Catching Fire,” though, has a little more social conscience and less of an emphasis on the actual battle in the arena. Not that the gladiatorial game itself isn’t well done; it is, and it is integral to the story.
The relationships, though, are stronger. Jennifer Lawrence is a powerful presence as Katniss, and Josh Hutcherson is stronger and more self-assured this time around as Peeta.
The triangle of Katniss, Peeta and hunky coal miner Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is intriguing, and there are good interactions with hard-drinking mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and even with bizarre escort Effie (Elizabeth Banks), who gets to show some humanity behind her garish makeup.
“Catching Fire” is slick and satisfying, even as a middle sequel that the viewer knows isn’t going to wrap anything up. It’s reasonably faithful to the written word, and it’s slightly better than the first “Hunger Games,” which was already pretty good.
The third and final installment of the series, unfortunately, will be drawn out into not one, but two movies, “Harry Potter” style.
Rental Recommendation: Another middle movie that works is “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Grade: A-plus.
Email Steve Ouellette at: firstname.lastname@example.org
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" "Catching Fire"
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson.
Rated: PG-13 (Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language).
Running time: 146 minutes.