A considerable upgrade over the first "Hunger Games" movie, "Catching Fire" comes across more like a remake than a sequel.
In the adaptation of the second installation in Suzanne Collins' young adult trilogy, there's certainly plenty that has changed. Rebellion against the totalitarian rule of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the 12 districts of Panum is growing. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is now a beloved hero with the weight of celebrity on her shoulders. And Philip Seymour Hoffman, bless him, has found his way into the proceedings.
Yet the general plot - a journey from Katniss' poor hometown of District 12 to a climactic game of human hunting in "the arena," with high-speed train rides and training sessions in between - is identical to the first "Hunger Games."
More has shuffled behind the camera, and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is much the better for it. Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend") has taken over directing from Gary Ross, whose poor handling of the first film didn't stop it from becoming a sensation. Lawrence has given the film (the budget was nearly doubled) a more settled environment heavy on greys and a more appropriately grave emotional atmosphere. These are kids being forced to kill other kids, the franchise seems to have realized.
"Catching Fire" opens with Katniss back in District 12, haunted by the experiences of her first Hunger Games. There, too, is her flame Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who's slaving away in the mines. (Hemsworth, a nonentity in both films, makes about as convincing a miner as Ben Stiller's Zoolander did.)
But Katniss' success in the Hunger Games was partly due to her for-publicity-sake romance with her co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, who seems about half the height of the screen-dominating Lawrence). President Snow, aware of the put-on, insists they keep up the charade to help pacify the uprising.
There's an ironic satire of modern celebrity somewhere in "Catching Fire." Katniss has become famous only to find it a trap. As her Hunger Games coach Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) says, "You never get off this train."
Lawrence isn't so different. "The Hunger Games," along with her more interesting work in "Winter's Bone" and "Silver Linings Playbook," has made her an enormous star. She is quite literally "the girl on fire," as Katniss is nicknamed.
When she's trotted out with Peeta on a victory tour of the 12 districts to "feed the monster" - that is, to distract the masses with their tabloid romance - one can't help but see "The Hunger Games" as the same kind of diversion. It's dystopia-lite: a bloody tale of oppression watered down for a PG-13 rating.
The act doesn't work as Snow intended. On the tour, we get glimpses of protesters, emboldened by Katniss, swiftly snuffed out by Storm Trooper-like guards. (Any actual dying in "The Hunger Games" always happens just off screen). With his plotting new adviser (Hoffman, adding a dose of intrigue), Snow announces a twist: The next Hunger Games will be fought between former Games winners. He hopes these Hunger Games will reveal - in the reality show broadcast of the event - Katniss as a killer, not a symbol of populist hope.
The most pleasing moment in "Catching Fire" comes when these other former Victors - a motley crew of veteran warriors - is introduced. Among the bone-crushing murder professionals is, of all people, Jeffrey Wright. He proves a cunning brainiac.
Back are Elizabeth Banks (as the Capitol escort Effie), Lenny Kravitz (as Katniss' pyrotechnic stylist) and, easily the high point of both movies, Stanley Tucci as the campy broadcast emcee Caesar. Among the newcomers, Sam Claflin, as the arrogant Hunger Games veteran Finnick Odair, has a mischievous charm.
But "Catching Fire" is, to be sure, Lawrence's show. The exaggerated world of "The Hunger Games," with its cartoonish decadents, teenage Roman gladiators and theatrical allegory, would overwhelm most young actors. But Lawrence (convincingly tormented in this film) has a calm sincerity and steely determinism that cuts through it all. Katniss' rise is hers, too.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," a Lionsgate release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language. Running time: 146 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.