As “Catching Fire” gets underway, Katniss and Peeta are touring the benighted districts of Panem, where a restive populace is spoiling for revolution. Urged on by the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), they ratchet up their ginned-up romance, distracting the starving, impoverished masses with hints of a wedding and, just maybe, an impending baby bump.
Despite their obvious historical allusions, the “Hunger Games” films — based on the cult hit series of novels by Suzanne Collins — are very much about America today, from the consumerist decadence and obscene disparities in wealth enjoyed by Panem’s smug one percent to a reality-show culture of competition that’s been taken to murderous extremes.
Taking its cue as much from “Project Runway” as from “Survivor,” Collins’s universe is one in which couture dresses carry as much meaning and empowerment as weaponry. In this installment, it’s a full hour and a half before Katniss embarks on a new set of games, providing lots of time for her to simmer angrily at the injustices she witnesses. While she reluctantly goes along with Snow’s bread-and-circuses ruse, she acts as model and muse for her unfailingly on-trend stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who once again can be counted on to come up with sartorial showstoppers that may or may not burst into flames at the wearer’s command.
Cue Alicia Keys! Whereas for some of us the confounding cosmology of kids killing other kids for pleasure and political expedience reeks of cynicism and downright perversion, fans of “The Hunger Games” should find “Catching Fire” a superlative advancement of the franchise. Director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”), taking the reins from Gary Ross, smoothly steers the characters through their latest course of depredations and abuse, allowing plenty of moments to simply sit back and groove on the eye candy.
Filming in icy blues and greys, Francis Lawrence evokes the despair of Katniss’s world back home, where jack-booted thugs (a.k.a. “Peacekeepers”) routinely whip, torture and shoot dissenters. Keenly aware of his adolescent audience, the director always manages to look away before the violence becomes too icky. Once Katniss, Peeta and their fellow competitors reach the giant terrarium that serves as their latest “arena,” they face a series of desert island risks that include toxic fog, squalls of blood, explosive lightning and a tribe of the most terrifying monkeys since “The Wizard of Oz.”
At nearly two and a half hours, “Catching Fire” may well strike non-“Games” players as insufferably sluggish, especially during the interminable run-up to the games, when host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, doing his best Martin Short) introduces the new cast of players. Newcomers include the spiky Johanna (Jena Malone), the bespectacled Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Finnick (Sam Claflin), each of whom will figure prominently in Katniss’s new challenge. Once again, Katniss and Peeta are coached by the lovably goofy duo of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie, whose outfits still call to mind Vivienne Westwood run gleefully amok. And a new, more mysterious figure has also appeared on the scene: Plutarch Heavensbee, a malevolent game designer played with rumpled seriousness by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
As has been proved in the Marvel “Avengers” series, having such genuinely accomplished actors channel such outlandish fantasy makes all the difference. Everyone hits their marks with gusto and believability in “Catching Fire” — even Liam Hemsworth, who has next to nothing to do as Katniss’s hometown squeeze, Gale.
But the engine of the entire operation is Jennifer Lawrence, who in Katniss has found a character that chimes perfectly with her own persona as an earthy, blunt-speaking ingenue suddenly thrust into a world of celebrity and media-fueled idol worship. Somehow managing to look like a real, flesh-and-blood girl even in “Catching Fire’s” most bizarre tableaux, Lawrence is never less than compelling, her rounded cheeks suggesting innocence but her sharp, alert gaze suggesting otherwise, whether she’s aiming her notorious bow and arrow or scrutinizing Cinna’s latest incendiary creation.
Much like the young heroine she doesn’t play as much as inhabit from the inside out, Lawrence is a force of nature. Even viewers who watch “Catching Fire” unwillingly won’t be able to resist her gravitational pull, which in her case isn’t a function of conventional movie-star looks, but character and command presence. Her final, steely stare at the camera says it all, suggesting an actress fully equipped and ready to navigate her brave, often depraved, new world. I’ve got this, the look seems to say. The monster must be fed.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and profanity. 146 minutes.