Having survived the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are now closely scrutinized both by the media and malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who suspects their romance was merely a ruse to cheat death. Would-be boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) proves none too happy when Katniss and Peeta play up their relationship for the cameras while on a traumatic publicity tour across the other districts. It gradually dawns on Katniss that by defying the government she sparked a new spirit of dissent among the populace. Fearing Katniss has become a symbol of revolution, President Snow contrives to place her and Peeta in yet another battle to the death among contestants culled from the seasoned ranks of past victors. Only this time there is more to the 75th Hunger Games than meets the eye.
Unlike the vast majority of sequels The Hunger Games: Catching Fire does not ignore the psychological after-effects of the events of The Hunger Games (2012) to simply rehash the action on a more amped up and elaborate scale. In fact the film opens with a close-up on Katniss' face that shows our heroine is still visibly traumatized by the horrors she endured last time around. Thereafter the overriding arc of the story charts her gradual but determined recovery of her courage, strength and inner resolve, setting plot wheels in motion for the forthcoming two-part finale. Mid-films in movie trilogies (or as has been fashionable of late, four-parters) are called to perform the trickiest of balancing acts: build on what came before, lay the groundwork for what is yet to come whilst telling a story that stands on its own legs without seeming like a superficial add-on. That is a seriously tall order. Little wonder so many sequels fail. Swapping original writer-director Gary Ross for Francis Lawrence (no relation to his leading lady), director of flawed but interesting fantasy films I Am Legend (2007) and Constantine (2005), Catching Fire happily ranks among the more successful examples, capturing the same level of emotional intensity with affecting drama, biting social satire and visceral action set-pieces, spearheaded by a roster of powerhouse performances. Not least from Jennifer Lawrence who brings the same commitment to portraying the iconic Katniss Everdeen that she does to her more critically-lauded collaborations with David O. Russell.
Admittedly the set-up is a little more langorous this time round but Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games novels have always distinguished themselves from routine teen fantasy fare by having more meat to chew in the downtime between adrenalin-pumping action sequences. Even the love triangle has dimensions beyond mere teen bait. As Katniss and Peeta go to increasingly elaborate lengths to convince fans and the government their love is real the film expands upon the biting satire of reality television established in the original. Holding a Lewis Carroll-like mirror upon our own tabloid obsessed, increasingly combative society, Catching Fire envisions a world where media manipulation is a way life. Grotesque chat show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and prissy, frivolous spokeswoman Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) are parodies of contemporary media archetypes in fanciful sci-fi drag although the script humanizes the latter this time round. Aided by nicely nuanced performance by Banks, in her own brittle, silly way genuinely cares about her young charges. In this world life for young people is an endless gladiatorial arena, both in and outside the games, where our heroes have no choice but to weave outlandish fictions just to survive. Collins' stroke of genius was to expand the anxieties of today's teenagers into the realm of science fiction. Nevertheless it remains an open question whether Katniss and Peeta are faking it or whether they might actually have genuine feelings for each other. While President Snow recognizes the huge potential in Katniss to serve as a political tool, she finds herself torn between despising the superficiality of her newfound celebrity and the nagging sense that it could and should be used to do something for the greater good of humanity. Especially powerful is the scene where Katniss unveils her spectacular new dress at Caesar's pre-game show, a showstopping moment that makes a potent point about art, or specifically fashion as means of making a political statement albeit one with repercussions.
Francis Lawrence proves more comfortable with handling sweeping set-pieces and not quite as deft as Ross was at capturing the many little quirks and grace notes served up a smart script co-written by British Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy, of The Full Monty (1997) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) fame, and Michael Arndt - whose diverse credits include Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Toy Story 3 (2010) and the Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle Oblivion (2013) - and the outstanding cast. In one of his last roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the new game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee, a more complex and politically savvy adversary than even President Snow suspects. Jena Malone adds welcome spice as outspoken and flirty (to say the least!) Hunger Games veteran Joanna Mason, who casually strips off in an elevator in front of a bemused Peeta and none too impressed Katniss. Sam Claflin makes his mark as Finnick Odair, a deceptively arrogant past victor, while Geoffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer are equally memorable as a couple of geeky contestants who favour brains over brawn. True to form, Plummer goes nuts.
Once the gladiatorial contest begins in earnest, the film does not take its foot off the pedal as rather than teens and children, this time the combatants comprise seasoned veterans, middle aged couples and the elderly pitted against poisonous fog, psychotic baboons, blood rain and malevolent mockingbirds. Through it all Katniss and Peeta exhibit uncommon decency and compassion, albeit with a heightened sense of paranoia as the arena is twice as deadly and no-one is what they seem. Catching Fire succeeds at hitting the same emotional beats without feeling repetitive and delivers breakneck action without seeming flippant about violence. The climax literally breaks the wall and sets the stage for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One (2014). Let the revolution begin!