Another year, another prime-time massacre in the sad land of Panem. You’ll recall that in the first “Hunger Games” movie, our spunky protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), outfoxed government game-runners to emerge victorious at the end of the annual rite. This should have exempted her from further participation in these bloody extravaganzas, but Panem’s evil dictator, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), alarmed that Katniss has become a figurehead for mounting rebellion among his miserable subjects, has declared a special new edition of the Hunger Games that will pit past victors against one another in a new battle to the death. With any luck, he fervently hopes, Katniss will be among the corpses littering this year’s arena.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is in some ways a rerun of the first film — nearly 2 1/2 hours of teenage action-romance. But it’s a better movie. Even though the first installment grossed more than $680 million worldwide, the producers have brought in a new creative team to punch things up. Their wisest hire was director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”), who whips the story along in a tightly focused style; the picture never sags or wanders. It’s still a movie aimed at fans of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling YA novels — and of Jennifer Lawrence, naturally — but even viewers dragged into it kicking and screaming are unlikely to be entirely bored.
Most of the key actors are back in harness: Elizabeth Banks as Katniss’ fashion-victim chaperone, Effie Trinket; Woody Harrelson as her boozy coach, Haymitch Abernathy; and the great Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the government game-show host from hell. (With his blazing-white teeth and purple eyebrows, he’s an icon of showbiz insincerity.) And there are some welcome new additions, too, chief among them Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, the weaselly government gamemaker. (“Fun is my business!”) Hoffman has never met a written character he can’t improve upon, and he devises a carefully ambiguous charm for this one. Jena Malone (“Sucker Punch”) brings a punkette energy to the role of ax-wielding contestant Johanna Mason, and Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer add a sweet emotional layer to the film as the brainiac contestants Beetee and Wiress, who discern a crucial flaw in Plutarch’s insidious game design. Katniss is still saddled with mopey fake boyfriend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), but he’s effectively crowded out this time by a far more engaging hunk, named Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin of “Snow White and the Huntsman“).
The movie advances the “Hunger Games” story in serviceable fashion. Katniss and her partner Peeta are compelled by Snow to leave their grim coal mining town and embark on a promotional tour of Panem’s other heavily oppressed districts. Snow also forces them to continue posing as girlfriend-boyfriend (“Our two lethal lovers!” Flickerman crows during a TV appearance) to add bogus romance to the grisly government narrative. Their ultimate destination is the Capitol, where Katniss’ stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), once again decks her out in about a half-pound of mascara and familiar fiery gowns (one of which unwisely announces his own rebel sympathies). After meeting their fellow contestants (“I want them all dead!” Snow hisses to Plutarch), they’re off to the arena — this time a hot, thick jungle arranged around a big lagoon with a Tilt-A-Whirl-style “cornucopia” of weapons at its center. The games begin.
Plutarch and Snow watch via video feed as the contestants are assaulted and knocked off by an unrelenting array of perils — an attack by giant baboons among the most fearsome. Director Lawrence stages all of this with sleek economy — there’s rarely a scene that lasts a moment longer than it should — and he skillfully balances the movie’s action with quieter interludes of plot-pushing conversation and even some chaste PG-13 nuzzling. Things grow dark at the end, as you know they must — until Katniss pulls one last arrow from her apparently bottomless quiver.
The movie was partly shot with Imax cameras for maximum widescreen impact, and you may be very happy to know that it’s not in 3-D. It is the middle installment of this story (the concluding chapter, profit-stretchingly broken into two films, will be released over the next two years), but it stands fairly well on its own. Apart from Sutherland — who, I think, murmurs too much to be convincing as a really rotten guy — the performers are well-suited to their roles and seem to be having fun with them.
The movie is tricked out with an expected component of digital and animatronic enhancements. But its most special effect, once again, is Jennifer Lawrence. Her deep talent as an actor is barely called upon here, but her serene beauty anchors the film. She’s required only to glow, and she does. And that’s enough.