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‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’: A human story amid great special effects

‘The Hunger Games:
Catching Fire’ ★★★1⁄2

Katniss Everdeen | Jennifer Lawrence

Peeta Mellark | Josh Hutcherson

Haymitch Abernathy | Woody Harrelson

Effie Trinket | Elizabeth Banks

Lionsgate presents a film directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael DeBruyn, based on the novel “Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins. Running time: 146 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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Updated: April 14, 2014 4:48PM

Katniss Everdeen is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hunting in the woods outside District 12, Katniss has a turkey in her sight, but at the last moment she sees a vision of a boy she had to kill in “The Hunger Games” — a tribute from District One, an arrow piercing his heart. She doesn’t take the shot. She falls to the ground in haunted agony.

Katniss is also plagued by night terrors, as is Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son from District 12, the good guy Katniss is not in love with but must pretend to be in love with, for the near future and perhaps much longer. These two are the only survivors from the most recent Hunger Games, meaning 22 other children and young adults were killed in that grotesque tournament.

This is one of the reasons why the “Hunger Games” movies resonate so deeply with fans. Some social critics have taken issue with a PG-13 fantasy in which kids kill one another for the sporting pleasure of a nation — but the children and teenagers in these stories come across as real human beings, not cartoonishly one-dimensional action figures.

Of course Katniss has PTSD. She’s just experienced unimaginable carnage, some of it by her own hands.

Jennifer Lawrence is one of our best young actresses, and she shines as the stubborn, courageous, vulnerable and (sometimes reluctantly) heroic Katniss. It doesn’t hurt that “Catching Fire” also features such outstanding returning talents as Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland and Elizabeth Banks — and adds the great Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new overseer of games, one Plutarch Heavensbee, who delights in adding a “wrinkle,” as he puts it, every now and then.

These are major talents taking their roles seriously, even when the proceedings go over the top.

Still reeling from their Hunger Games experience, Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are on a mandated “Victory Tour” through the 12 Districts, with the booze-swigging Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and the sunny, insanely outfitted Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) providing guidance along the way.

But the propaganda goes sideways. As the giant video screens in each district display images of the tributes who didn’t survive, as the families of the victims stand with their neighbors, fighting back the tears and clenching their fists as the Stormtrooper-like henchmen give watch, as Katniss and Peeta try to get through the scripted ceremonies, it’s increasingly obvious the populace has had it and is getting restless.

“Catching Fire” is all about that coming storm. President Snow (Sutherland in full hissing snake mode) would like nothing more than to squash the people’s Mockingjay of hope (that would be Katniss), but he doesn’t want to create a martyr in the process.

Enter Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee, who comes up with a nifty plan to get Katniss and Peeta back into the arena, along with other victors from recent years. Most of them national heroes, many of them friends, now forced to face off against one another, with only one surviving.

Knowing some of these Hunger Games superstars will struggle greatly with having to kill a sibling, a lover or an old friend in this super-tournament, Heavensbee manufactures a number of life-threatening forces, from ferocious super-baboons to a killer fog resembling something you might have seen on “Lost.” Along the way, Katniss (and the viewer unfamiliar with the source material) is never entirely sure who’s with her, who’s against her — and who’s somewhere in between. It’s human chess with fatal consequences.

With a budget nearly twice the size of the first “Hunger Games” movie, steady direction from Francis Lawrence (taking the reins from Gary Ross), a strong script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn that doesn’t deviate greatly from the Suzanne Collins source material, and some great production values and special effects, “Catching Fire” makes only the occasional misstep.

So much of the tournament action takes place at night, in the jungle, that at times it’s difficult to figure out which gray-and-black outfitted contestant is which. Also, some new additions (Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer) are more annoying than entertaining. And on at least one occasion, plot twists are telegraphed so loudly you can see them coming even if you haven’t read the books.

Mostly quibbling here. Overall, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a worthy sequel to the original and a fitting setup to the finale of the series, which will be divided into two movies a la “Twilight.”

Stanley Tucci is great fun as the slimy TV host Caesar Flickerman. Banks manages to infuse her ridiculous character with some genuine humanity. And it’s kinda great when Jeffrey Wright of all people shows up as a former Hunger Games victor who survived purely on brainpower.

Obviously there’s a huge element of the fantastical in the “Hunger Games” movies, but the participants in those annual life-or-death games are not superheroes or teen vampires. They’re young adults equipped with knives and spears and bows and arrows, killing each other only because they have to.

Even with all the wondrous and sometimes intense special effects, even with all the futuristic touches, at heart this is the story of a girl thrust (against her wishes) into the forefront of a revolution.

One can understand why an entire beleaguered nation would follow Katniss into the fire.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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