Francis Lawrence may not have had to fight for his life while directing the second installment in The Hunger Games series, but his task, metaphorically speaking, was not entirely unlike entering the dreaded arena: He had to appease the series' passionate fan base without alienating those unfamiliar with the story, depict a wide variety of environments, and avoid the trappings of adapting a middle book. Frankly, the odds sucked. The good news is that he prevailed anyway.
The key to the success of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is its steadfast adherence to the novel's central theme: Surviving the Games and leaving the arena are not mutually exclusive. The film once again begins in the dreary District 12, where Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have literally and figuratively been set apart from the rest of the community. Their newfound wealth and luxurious new homes in the "Victor's Village" leave them physically isolated from those who continue to starve under the Capitol's brutal regime; more importantly, their experiences in the Games have left them both with acute post-traumatic stress disorder. The once steely Katniss cries frequently and suffers from nightmares and hallucinations. Peeta is solemn and depressed. Their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) continues to anesthetize himself with alcohol. While the victors continue to fight the wars in their minds, a very real spark of revolution is spreading throughout the impoverished districts.
The film transitions seamlessly to the Victory Tour, wherein Katniss and Peeta are forced to sing the praises of the Capitol in each of the districts in front of an audience that includes the families of those killed in the Games. Prior to the tour, Katniss was addressed by President Snow himself (played to perfection by Donald Sutherland), who challenged her to quash all thoughts of revolution lest her district be razed and family murdered. Initially, his intent was to make Katniss a pariah by forcing her to act as a tool of the Capitol; however, the oppressed masses remain emboldened, forcing Snow to introduce what is referred to as a "wrinkle." The tributes for the 75th Hunger Games will be reaped from a pool of existing victors in a power move that he hopes will reinforce the iron fist of the Capitol.
Catching Fire's tone evolves smoothly from barely contained anxiety to foreboding to betrayal to grim acceptance with very little exposition -- a difficult feat for a film that is driven by action rather than dialogue. There is virtually no dead weight among the cast. Lawrence continues to shine as the reluctant hero Katniss, while Hutcherson imparts a level of depth to his character that was missing in the first movie. Sassy Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), who uses her TV spot to curse at the Capitol audience, is a welcome foil for serious Katniss, and fan favorite Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) wields a trident like nobody's business. Francis Lawrence made a wise decision in emphasizing the camaraderie that takes place inside the arena: It would have been a much more difficult feat to distinguish this film from a watery version of the last had Katniss played the game alone.
Catching Fire is tightly paced with very little filler. No line or character is wasted. Even the eccentric, Capitol-born Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) has evolved from the first movie and has become attached to "her" tributes, albeit in a touchingly clueless kind of way. Philip Seymour Hoffman is flawless as the new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (you can all but see the chess pieces moving with his every word), and Donald Sutherland plays President Snow as though he were the love child of Hannibal Lecter and Voldemort. The film's greatest achievement, however, is its refusal to whitewash the material, condescend to its audience, or perpetuate the myth that the good guys always win, grow up, get married, have babies, and live happily ever after. Despite moments of levity, this is a brutal movie (a success in and of itself given the PG-13 rating) that comes in like a hurricane and provides a needed ass kicking to the schmaltzy, supernatural love triangles that have plagued young-adult fiction in a post-Harry Potter world.