But "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is an improvement over 2012's Part One, even if designed and executed as a place-holder (complete with cliffhanger ending) rather than a full-blooded story on its own.
In the first installment we met the tragically named Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who triumphed in the annual Hunger Games staged by an evil dictator (Donald Sutherland) and his media-savvy minions.
Katniss had to kill her competitors in the games, save for Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with whom she feigned love interest in order to survive.
The two victors, and their drunky mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), are now paraded around in a Soviet-style pacification of the downtrodden audience, and eventually sucked back into another round of the games.
Despite the lopsided structure of the 146-minute movie, the thing manages to sustain some momentum as it goes along -- in no small part thanks to Lawrence's complete commitment to this pulpy material. And director Francis ("I Am Legend") Lawrence's style is an upgrade over the previous film's phony camera jitters.
We also get a new supporting cast with some surprisingly top-shelf talent: Philip Seymour Hoffman as a games designer, Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone as former games victors, and newcomer/sure-thing breakout star Sam Claflin as a potential third romantic possibility for Katniss (Liam Hemsworth is around again as her small-town beau, once again sidelined from the real action).
"Catching Fire" uncorks a few genuinely exciting revelations in the final minutes, which aren't quite enough to cover the absence of an actual climax for this story.
But after years of the "Twilight" movies, the audience should be prepared for that. The real goal here is to have a DVD box set, which can be power-watched as a marathon. (The final book in Suzanne Collins' literary trilogy, "Mockingjay," will be split into two films, so next time expect even more treading water.)
I still don't understand why we never see anybody in the movie actually watching the Hunger Games, given their place in this society's culture. But the franchise has to be careful with that -- criticizing the audience for its taste in mindless distraction is probably not the wisest path to blockbuster success.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (3 stars)
Part two of Suzanne Collins' bestselling series is an improvement over the 2012 original; despite a lopsided structure, it maintains some momentum and has some truly exciting revelations in its final minutes, along with the committed presence of leading lady Jennifer Lawrence.
Rated: PG-13 for violence, subject matter.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Pacific Place, Woodinville, Casdcade Mall, Oak Harbor.
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