Building on the robust foundations of last year’s opening salvo, Catching Fire is a lean and muscular sequel, which strikes a pleasing balance between brawn and brains.
The final hour of Francis Lawrence’s film might be devoted to the 75th annual Hunger Games, a televised battle royale pitting combatants against one another in a booby-trapped arena. Yet the director and scriptwriters Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy aren’t in a hurry to bludgeon us with bloodshed and savagery. They invest precious time in developing sinewy emotional bonds between characters and light the fuse on civil unrest that will explode in the concluding chapter, Mockingjay, which has been split into two films.
Unlike its predecessor, the second instalment didn’t require UK censor cuts to its on-screen violence to secure an 12A certificate. Yet Catching Fire is every bit as unrelentingly grim and brutal.
The film opens with resilient heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) back in District 12, hunting alongside her beau, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).
They steal a kiss in secret before Katniss returns to the Victors’ Village to continue her fake romance with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) for the cameras. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is waiting for her.
Flanked by booze-sodden mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and sartorially daring escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss and Peeta tour the districts, scenting rebellion in the air.
Meanwhile, Snow recruits a new Games creator, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to stage a special anniversary tournament.
In the arena, Katniss and Peeta risk everything once again to keep each other alive, forging alliances with cocksure Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and his elderly mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen), quixotic duo Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and rabble-rousing loose cannon, Johanna Mason (Jena Malone).
Running six minutes longer that the first film, and whets the appetite nicely for a devastating final stand.
Most of the violence in the arena takes place off screen but as the cliff-hanger ending of the sequel makes clear, before every storm, there is a lull.
Take a deep breath, while you still can.
By Damon Smith