"Catching Fire" Review: Craig's First Take

Photo Credit: Photo by Murray Close – © 2013 - Lionsgate

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Note to “Mortal Instruments”, just because you got kids to read doesn’t make you a phenomenon. Get a movie poster with a countdown clock attached to it, then we’ll talk.

The warrior who is slowly but surely winning me over to all this hype is Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), now traumatized, confused over her feelings for her hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her Hunger Games co-champion Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and made to live segregated from the rest of District 12 in Victors village. Her stunt to save both her and Peeta has also done much to make a fool of President Snow (Donald Sutherland, ruthlessly looking like he wants to squash anyone he comes in contact with).

Her problems are just starting though. Forced to go on a victory tour with Peeta, their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and cotton-candy with legs (actually the always colorfully decorated Effie Trinkett, played by Elizabeth Banks), they all realize the squalor most of the other districts live in as well as their own entrapment in the Hunger Games for the rest of their natural lives. But Katniss also finds that she has become a symbol for the rebellion, the very thing Snow warned her against.

Francis Lawrence takes over for Garry Ross at director and here is where this second Hunger Games really comes alive. Where Ross refused to let anything breathe on screen, Lawrence has added a more crucial tone, finds the heart of people living in peril and the even more nerve-wracking idea of rebelling against it. By the time the Quarter Quell is announced, a special version of the Games where all players are chosen from a pool of past victors (and guess what, Katniss and Peeta are among them), the stakes have been set very high and the suspense couldn’t be better.

The games eventually do start but first we get to meet some of the other players, a mix of the psychotic and affably eccentric. There’s also some really cool special effects (loved the interactive training sessions), the costumes and make-up are as excessively over the top as ever, and the scenery in the film is fantastic. While the cold and dreary look of District 12 stays with you, the inspirations behind the city of Panem remain even more ingenious, it’s like Spartacus combined with Liberace. Like I said, the games do start (filmed with an Imax camera no less) and there are all types of booby traps, dangerous wildlife, and other surprises in store but even as this is going on, Lawrence never wastes a wonderful cast; the drama remains gripping throughout.

Jennifer Lawrence (no relation), who had to work around her X-Men: Days of the Future” shoot, is powerful here, capturing the reluctant, bruised heart of a champion and a young girl made to go through more than she ever bargained for. Everybody from Stanley Tucci (stealing every scene as condescending, brown-nosing television host Caesar Flickerman), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (as new gamekeeper Plutarch, who may be an even more devious aversary than Snow), Lenny Kravitz (really well cast in a touching role as Katniss’make-up artist Cinna), and newcoming players to the game Jenna Malone (as the lethal Johanna Mason, a victor from District 7 who has also lost much of what she cares about), Sam Claflin (as preening, heroic pretty boy Finnick ODair from District 4), and Jeffrey Wright (as brainiac Beetee from District 3) all have their moments and shine in them.

Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt also get credit for really fleshing out Suzanne Collin’s 400 page book, this time touching a little less on the sensationalism of both the costumes and “ways to win over a crowd” and focusing on characters, most of which are going to play a big part in the final two part films. And while this Hunger Games isn’t nearly as brutal as the last film, it’s an entirely better experience thanks to Francis Lawrence, a man who even with “I Am Legend” and “Constantine” knew a thing or two about creating exciting, stylized action as well as characters to care about. Even though “Catching Fire” ends with a “continuation” rather than a finale, I still think it’s the best blockbuster I’ve seen this year and may be one of those few occasions where the movie is even better than the book. Katniss really is on fire now, and I can’t wait to see Lawrence, actually both of them, in action come “Mockingjay” time.