* Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.
* Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes.
You'd think that being the winner of the biggest contest in the country would make life easier.
Yeah, you'd think, unless you were Katniss Everdeen and living in the wretched world of The Hunger Games.
Tension is ratcheted up from the beginning of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," the second film in the series. And it's a far better film than the first because of it. Stakes are higher here. Katniss is not just protecting her own life; now she must protect her family, her friends, her district and even the country of Panem itself.
Jennifer Lawrence, who improves anything just by being in it, again holds the movie with her steady, multilayered performance. She plays the 16-year-old Katniss taut as a bowstring in most instances but, at 23, she is mature enough to subtly display Katniss' conflicting emotions - her terror, her compassion, her anger. Yet she's not so far removed from her own teenage years that she can't still tap into them to bring out the confusion of that age, especially the problem of having feelings for two boys.
And keep an eye on her reaction during her first meeting with former Hunger Games victor Johanna Mason. Lawrence says nothing but provides an acting class on how to use facial expressions to convey absolutely everything.
"Catching Fire" picks up a few months after the end of "The Hunger Games." Although she and partner Peeta Mallark survived the games - the first duo ever to do so - Katniss' ploy to pretend to be in love with Peeta hasn't been bought by everyone, including the malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland). But worse than that - both for Snow and Katniss - many in the country are more interested in the compassion, humanity and bravery that she displayed in the game than the love story. Katniss has become a symbol, giving the masses the courage to push back against the totalitarian regime.
To get rid of her and her rapidly growing influence, Snow invokes a rule technicality (that may or may not be legit) to bring former victors in the Hunger Games back to the arena. This time around, Katniss cannot go it alone, which is her preference; she must form alliances and, even harder for her, she must trust others.
Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) could be the sweetest human being on the entire planet, but Katniss ostensibly is in love with Gale back in District 12. Gale may be a great guy (he seems nice in the scenes he's in), but we just don't see enough of him to get a clear view.
Peeta, though, is selfless, kind and caring, and Katniss can't help but be touched by his love for her and his innate goodness, especially in the heat of battle, when he becomes her rock. Peeta is so good (without being saccharine about it), you just want to give him a big hug all the time.
Like "The Hunger Games," "Catching Fire" builds up to the actual violent game itself, which takes up the final third of the movie. But the scenes setting everything up hold interest because of the emotional turmoil swirling around everyone, as well as the political maneuvering and gameplaying going on behind the scenes.
Surprisingly for a film so focused on a single character, "Catching Fire" also allows some development in its secondary roles. Even minor characters like Effie (Elizabeth Banks) have chances to shine, providing an unexpected depth to the film. Someone should have told Stanley Tucci to tone it down a bit, though, because his game-show host Caesar Flickerman, a hoot in "The Hunger Games," is hammier than a pork butt here.
Once things rev up, director Francis Lawrence (who directed "I Am Legend" and "Water for Elephants," which had scenes filmed around Chattanooga) juggles the pacing well, alternating the headlong rush of action with slower, explanatory scenes. And, of course, the ending sets up the final book, "Mockingjay," which will be presented in two parts (damn you "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.")
Lawrence is tapped to film both parts of "Mockingjay" and, judging by "Catching Fire," the franchise finale is in good hands.
Contact Shawn Ryan at email@example.com or 423-757-6327.