Second movies in a series can be such a comfort: We already know the key characters, we have a sense of where the plot is going, we just have to hang on and enjoy the thrills. Which is what happens with "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."
An effective piece of melodramatic popular entertainment that savvily builds on the foundation established by the first "Hunger Games" movie, "Catching Fire" layers in increased visual brio while remaining faithful to the essence of a trilogy popular enough to have more than 50 million copies in print.
That brio comes courtesy of director Francis Lawrence, who took over the series from Gary Ross. Though he's directed features such as "I Am Legend" and "Water for Elephants," it is Lawrence's music video work that's won him multiple awards, including a pair of Grammys, and the expansion in size and scope this project's larger budget allows proves well within his power.
That expansion is necessary because there is more at stake than ever in the world of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). While the first film took her from small town huntress to victory in the kill-or-be killed national tournament called the Hunger Games, "Catching Fire" potentially gives her — much against her will — the possibility of a bigger role in the political landscape of the totalitarian future state known as Panem.
Lawrence's intertwined strength and vulnerability as Katniss were the sine qua non of the first film, and she is the sequel's biggest asset as well. Now an Oscar winner for "Silver Linings Playbook," Lawrence has clearly taken this role very much to heart, throwing herself into it to such an extent that she creates genuine emotion from what is essentially pulpy material.
Two capable screenwriters have adapted the Suzanne Collins novel, Simon Beaufoy (an Oscar winner for "Slumdog Millionaire") and Michael deBruyn (a pseudonym for "Little Miss Sunshine's" Michael Arndt). While the dialogue has an unavoidable signpost quality at times (and at 2 hours, 26 minutes, the film is longer than it needs to be), the script is structured in a way that emphasizes the qualities that have made the novels so successful.
For what Collins adroitly did was place a kind of High School Confidential in very particular circumstances. Katniss, the very picture of self-sufficiency, can't make up her mind between two very different, very cute guys vying for her affections: old flame Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and new guy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), whom she had to very publicly pretend to love in order to survive the games. Worse than that, Katniss is so stressed out by her experiences in the games she can't decide if she's in love with anyone. What's a girl to do?
Also very appealing to the intended demographic are two key aspects of Katniss' personality. On the one hand there's her youthful idealism: Katniss burns with fury at the depredations of Panem's ruling class, epitomized by the oily, manipulative President Snow (Donald Sutherland). On the other hand, her natural self-effacing modesty restrains her from taking a leadership role in the incipient rebellion that her actions in the games seem to have precipitated. Again, what's a girl to do?
"Catching Fire" begins with Katniss and Peeta scheduled to start on a Victory Tour of all of Panem's districts to celebrate their joint Hunger Games triumph. This despite the fact that the aftereffects of their romantic deception has put both of them into very bad moods.
Katniss' mood is not elevated by a visit from President Snow. No fool he, Snow is hip to her deal, he knows that she and Peeta are far from lovebirds. But because Katniss' willingness to take poison in the games has been viewed by some as an act of defiance rather than undying love, he insists that she intensify her fake passion for Peeta or face the extermination of everyone she loves. This guy is no fun at all.
But the country does not quiet down, and Panem's devious new gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), decrees that it's time for a Quarter Quell, a special version of the games in which 24 former victors, very much including Katniss, will have to face off.
This new round of games allows for the return of key protagonists from the first film, including Woody Harrelson's Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks' Effie, Stanley Tucci's Caesar and Lenny Kravitz's Cinna.
The success of the first film has also enabled the hiring of strong actors for new characters. Besides Hoffman, these include Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as older, odder victors Beetee and Wiress, and Jena Malone and Sam Claflin as the younger, considerably more physical Johanna and Finnick.
Also new is the input of costume designer Trish Summerville, who has upped the ante on clothing outrageousness, for instance putting Effie in an Alexander McQueen monarch butterfly creation that defies belief and a fantasy wedding dress by Tex Saverio that morphs into something entirely different. It is the transformation of Lawrence, however, into a Katniss we can believe in that continues to make this franchise a success.
'Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language
Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun