FireWith a predecessor that was a worldwide phenomenon and made over $600 Million, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has the luxury of taking its sweet old time getting into the action. It does just that, making this film, the second in the quartet of films based on Suzanne Collins’ international bestselling book series, The Hunger Games, more of a conspiracy thriller rather than the balls-to-the-wall action movie the trailers lead you to believe.

Jennifer Lawrence reprises the role of Katniss Everdeen, the young heroine thrust into the spotlight after she volunteered to compete in the vicious, televised Hunger Games in place of her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields). As you’ll recall, Katniss won her installment of the games alongside Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta. The two decided they’d sooner end their lives than have to kill each other. All of these events take place in the first Hunger Games film, and they are smartly referred to, but not replayed in Catching Fire. Instead, the filmmakers assume anyone watching the film has seen the first one, so why be redundant.

Catching Fire picks up months after Katniss and Peeta’s triumph. Their families have been given new, wonderful homes, and they appear secure for life. Besides their obligation to tour around the districts of this dystopian future United States, the two teens hope their lives may return to some normalcy. But they won’t. Too much is expected of them, including playing out the fabricated romance Katniss and Peeta created in order to woo sponsors during the games. Life will never again be ”normal” for Katniss and Peeta; they’ll forever be under the thumb of the government. This point is driven home when the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland) pays an unexpected visit to Katniss to reveal that he has her under constant surveillance. He knows all, including that she harbors feelings for her childhood friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Snow commands that Katniss play the good soldier and not fan the flames of uprising that have grown thanks to her inspiring time in the first games. He threatens the safety of her family and friends if she doesn’t play along. Under the guidance of the mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and chaperone, Effie (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss and Peeta go on tour. While they do their best to continue the charade they’ve created, revolution is in the air. Snow quickly realizes that his attempts to quell the uprising aren’t going to work. Under the advice of his new gamekeeper, Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), Snow declares a special Hunger Games that will involve only past victors. Katniss and Peeta will have to fight again.

Did you catch all of that? It’s all in the trailer. What’s not in the trailer is the nuance and delicate touches each cast member brings to their roles. Despite the outrageous costumes and outlandish set pieces, Lawrence and company never veer into over-the-top ”movie” acting, which I believe is why the first Hunger Games film resonated so much with film goers. Yes, the books were a sensation, but that doesn’t always translate to film. Just ask the studios behind Beautiful Creatures and City of Bones. With Lawrence, the filmmakers landed a dedicated, world-class actress who has yet to hit her prime… and she already has an Academy Award. After all of the accolades she’s received for Silver Linings Playbook and, more recently, American Hustle, Lawrence might have phoned it in for Catching Fire. But she is every bit as convincing in this film as she was in the first.

Likewise, her cast mates all deliver strong, gripping performances. Hemsworth, with more to do in this film, plays wounded and bitter mixed with strength superbly, while Hutcherson builds on portraying unrequited love with heartbreaking accuracy.

The newcomers to The Hunger Games film universe all shine as well. Hoffman shares most of his scenes with Sutherland, and these two feed off each other. I’ve always been a fan of Sutherland, and watching him share lines with the incomparable Hoffman is a delight. In the arena of the new Hunger Games, Sam Claflin stands out as the charismatic, fearless and arrogant Finnick. Can you trust this guy? Claflin keeps you guessing. Elsewhere, Jena Malone steals scenes as the pissed off Johanna Mason, while Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer provide a touch of lightness as Beetee and Wires.

On a side note: Does Collins ever explain why everyone has creative names in the future? Did the names John, David, Mary and Kelly get outlawed?

Gary Ross, the director of the first film, as well as a contributor to the screenplay, stepped down for all subsequent sequels. In his place, Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has taken over. Save for fewer shaky-cam shots, Lawrence’s vision of the future retains the same oppressive gray hue as Ross’. The production design and make-up on this film are impeccable; their exclusion in this year’s Academy Awards still has me scratching my head.

Catching Fire ends with several twists and a nice cliffhanger, which left me with my jaw wide open and eager for the next installment (Mockingjay- Part 1) when it comes out this Thanksgiving. Unlike so many sequels, Catching Fire is that rare second film that is just as strong as its predecessor.

The Catching Fire blu-ray comes with a digital and DVD copy of the film. It has a nice collection of bonus features, including some well made featurettes that take you behind the scenes with the history and the casting of the film. The best details the production design of the film and shows how the filmmakers found many pratical locations to use for the film. Many of the fantastic landscapes you see in the movie are actually real and not created in the computer. Fans of The Hunger Games won’t be disappointed with this release.

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About the Author

Scott Malchus

Scott Malchus is a writer, filmmaker and die hard Cleveland Indians fan. His memoir, “Basement Songs,” is available in paperback and Kindle. He wrote and directed the film “King's Highway." His family is heavily involved in fund raising to find a cure for cystic fibrosis. Scott Malchus is an employee of Cartoon Network and Turner Broadcasting. The opinions expressed on Popdose are his own and do not reflect those of his employer. Email: Follow him @MrMalchus

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