The casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, the lead character in The Hunger Games trilogy of books was a genius move on the part of Lionsgate. Through the first movie, Lawrence would need to pull from the same well of emotions that drove her work in Winter’s Bone: the shuddering fear of someone forced into actions they never wanted to protect their family; the begrudging frustration of a young woman pushed gruffly into the world of adulthood. And in both cases, Lawrence proved more than capable of imbuing her characters with those qualities. It’s just that with The Hunger Games, she had to do a little more murdering of teenagers with a bow and arrow.
Unfortunately, Lawrence is pushed into much more hysterical emotional territory here in the sequel. She spends the majority of the film screaming or crying or waking up in a PTSD-induced freakout. The full measure of blame for that can be meted out on the plotting of this story, which shoves Katniss deep between a rock and a hard place, forced to continue a battle for her life and the lives of those she holds dear. But it’s a shame to watch Lawrence swing for the fences so damn hard throughout (says the guy who has never seen any of her horror movie work).
Thankfully, Catching Fire has the opportunity for much better supporting roles to help balance out the histrionics. Katniss is forced by Presidential decree to enter into another round of the Hunger Games as a way to quench an uprising among the common people of Panem. This time though, she will be up against other former winners, all of them adults. With these new characters, Lawrence is given a bunch of grown-up actors to play off of. And it’s a fine bunch indeed, including the ever-reliable Jeffrey Wright, a wonderfully sassy Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer, and as her unlikely ally, Finnick, the bulky and charming Sam Claflin.
Like the first film, there’s plenty of exposition that we have to slog through before we get to the Hunger Games action. But again, it is the actors who make it worth our while. Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci ratchet their ingratiating cheeriness up to dizzying heights. Donald Sutherland is in great snaky form as the President of Panem. And the introduction of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the mysterious new Gamemaker is a particularly nice touch. You can practically taste the bile behind his words.
The Games themselves are another thrill ride capped off with a fair amount of bloodletting. There isn’t as much of an emotional pull to any of it. Even if you’ve never read the books, you know that Katniss has to survive to appear in two more movies. Too, no tiny, adorable twelve-year-olds get garroted. But watching Katniss and her allies fend off ravenous monkeys and a poisonous fog provides the right kind of charge to keep you engrossed and entertained and hungry for the next two installments of this epic tale.