The best movies always surprise you on some level, even if they're based on well-traveled source material. I read THE HUNGER GAMES in anticipation for the first movie, but I decided this time out not to read CATCHING FIRE, to see if the film stands on its own. I quite liked THE HUNGER GAMES. Although the action cinematography left something to be desired, the performances were solid, and the world-building that Gary Ross started had a good foundation. Jennifer Lawrence won for the wrong performance that year. Her Katniss Everdeen joins such great science fiction heroines as Ripley and Sarah Connor, and I was very eager to go to the next film, with a performance like that anchoring the series.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE exceeds expectations so much that I'm legitimately worried that the MOCKINGJAY films won't be able to deliver on the promise of this movie. I'm definitely steering clear of the book this time; at the end of CATCHING FIRE, I was full of anticiaption the likes that I hadn't felt since I was a kid, wondering just how in the hell Luke Skywalker was going to get Han Solo away from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. I'm sure some enterprising young asshole will figure out a way to spoil it for me, but because I have faith in the filmmakers, you could tell me the story and I'd believe that the filmmakers will make even the most routine climax as compelling as they made CATCHING FIRE.
CATCHING FIRE takes place weeks after Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) arrive home from the Capitol, winners in the 74th Hunger Games and now under the high scrutiny of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Their victory seems to be the crack in the facade of this totalitarian society, and all of the Districts of Panem are tense and ripe for revolution. For Snow, this year's Victory Tour is all-important, and he relies on Katniss and Peeta to distract the populace just enough so that the discontent doesn't grow into something larger. Katniss cannot help who she is, though. Suffering from PTSD, and angry about all the needless death, Katniss tries to obey Snow's wishes for the sake of her family and for Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but she cannot control her own feelings.
The Tour is a failure, and so Snow, with the help of new Gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (the always terrific Philip Seymour Hoffman), announces the Quarter Quell, where during the 75th Hunger Games the chosen Victors will compete against each other. And so Katniss and Peeta, along with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) for support, must compete yet again. This time, Katniss isn't only competing for her life, but for Peeta, and the future of the Capitol.
Francis Lawrence, in easily his best directed work, focuses the story well, and while the movie is long, it never drags. Unlike the original film, Lawrence wisely lets the action speak for itself and doesn't rely on shaky camera tricks to build the intensity. This time, the intensity comes from the performances and our empathy towards the characters. Every actor delivers in CATCHING FIRE, and their commitment to this story and this world gives CATCHING FIRE a real weight and resonance that movies in this genre rarely achieve. CATCHING FIRE is serious business, but it's also very inviting and accessible.
I loved Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) this time out. I loved how he uses his skills and talents as protest to the cruel world of the Capitol. Even Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a character who seems nothing but fluff, does what she can in the little power that she has to effect change. Woody Harrelson is always welcome in these films, and Haymitch becomes the help and aid that Katniss and Peeta sorely need. Donald Sutherland's Snow doesn't so much as smile as bare his tiger teeth, and as he watches the tenuous balance shift, he becomes even more dangerous. The enigmatic Heavensbee, played by Hoffman, tries to hold Snow in check, and Hoffman gives him a malicious playfulness that works wonders, and whenever Hoffman is in a movie like this, he can't help but class up the joint by just being there. So many great roles and performances, almost beyond count, including Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as two former Victors who have their own agenda.
Lawrence is a heroine for the ages in CATCHING FIRE, but I'd also be remiss if I didn't address the men as well. Hutcherson gives Peeta a real moral center this time around - Peeta knows that he cannot win Katniss's heart, but he also knows that he can't change how he feels about her either. Hutcheson gives Peeta a real nobility this time around. Hemsworth doesn't have much to do in CATCHING FIRE, and Gale will certainly take a larger role in MOCKINGJAY, so we haven't had the opportunity to see just what Gale is capable of, but his moments do resonate, especially during a torture scene where Gale fights for the people of District 12. Sam Claflin, as Finnick Odair, a former Capitol Victor, is terrific, giving us just the right amount of smarm, and then surprises with his empathy and compassion. It's one of those performances that will likely break Claflin into bigger and better roles.
For a film about stoking the fires of revolution, CATCHING FIRE is quite subversive in its commentary on the bread and circuses of our current way of life. This is a multi-million - hell, practically a billion - dollar franchise, and I love how a major tentpole release like this shares its themes of disenfranchisement and revolution. Is this a brave thing to do in this day and age? Certainly not, but it's admirable that a movie aimed at the masses in the way that CATCHING FIRE is goes the places that it goes. This is mass entertainment, but it's not a paint-by-numbers movie by any means. During every possible moment, the actors, director, and the terrific script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt takes the braver choice. Their level of commitment and passion gives the movie so much more power than they could have, and the result is one of the most satisfying entries of a franchise I've seen in a while.
When the filmmakers really care about their story in the way that the makers of CATCHING FIRE do, all that marketing plastic cup Happy Meal bullshit just gets tossed over the side. That's not to say it's no longer there, but it gives us all hope that none of that will matter in the long run if the film is good. CATCHING FIRE is a great sequel that exceeds the original in almost every way, a rare enough creature these days that deserves to be celebrated. This franchise has its EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and now the real question is whether or not they can live up to the gauntlet thrown down here. It's going to be fun to see them try. Do not miss CATCHING FIRE.