Building on the robust foundations of last year’s opening salvo, Catching Fire is a lean, muscular sequel, which strikes a pleasing balance between brawn and brains.
The final hour of Francis Lawrence’s film might be devoted to the 75th annual Hunger Games, a televised battle royale pitting combatants against one another in a booby-trapped arena, yet director and scriptwriters Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy are in no hurry to bludgeon us with bloodshed and savagery.
They invest time in developing sinewy emotional bonds between characters and light the fuse on civil unrest that will explode in the concluding chapter, Mockingjay, which has been split into two films, a la Harry Potter and Twilight.
Unlike its predecessor, the second instalment required no UK censor cuts to on-screen violence to get an 12A certificate.
Yet Catching Fire is every bit as unrelentingly grim and brutal, including a savage flagellation at the hands of sadistic commander (Patrick St Esprit) and a moment of heartbreaking self-sacrifice.
The film opens with resilient heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) back in District 12, hunting alongside her beau, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). They steal a secret kiss before Katniss returns to the Victors’ Village to resume her fake romance with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) for the cameras.
Flanked by boozy mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and sartorially daring escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss and Peeta tour the districts, scenting rebellion in the air.
Meanwhile a new Games creator Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman)stages an anniversary tournament, the ‘Quarter Quell’, which will pit the darlings of District 12 against former winners.
In the arena Katniss and Peeta risk everything to keep each other alive, forging alliances with cocksure Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and his elderly mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen), quixotic duo Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and rabble-rouser Johanna Mason (Jena Malone).
Running six minutes longer than the first film this whets the appetite for a devastating final stand. The script turns up the heat on the central love triangle to a simmer, while Lawrence and Hutcherson expertly navigate their characters’ conflicting emotions, leavened by comic relief from Stanley Tucci as flamboyant TV host Caesar Flickerman.
With an extra $50m in the sequel’s budget, production design doesn’t disappoint, not least costume designer Trish Summerville, who pulls out the stops for Effie’s wacky wardrobe.
Most of the violence in the arena takes place off screen but as the cliff-hanger ending of the sequel makes clear, before every storm, there is a lull.
Take a deep breath – while you still can.
Sci-Fi/Thriller/Romance. Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lynn Cohen, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Willow Shields, Lenny Kravitz. Director: Francis Lawrence
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