Ever seen it rain blood in a kids’ film before? How about a pensioner getting executed in front of his family? Or a teenager hacking a skinhead to death with an axe? Or Lenny Kravitz being slapped in the face? The first Hunger Games caught flak because it dared to treat its YA audience like A’s – but things aren’t exactly looking any rosier in the sequel.
Following the unwritten lore of movie trilogies, the middle chapter of Katniss Everdeen’s sci-fi survival story is darker, moodier, meaner and, yes, better than Part 1. Outgrowing its Battle Royale meets The Running Man meets Twilight meets The X Factor comparisons, Catching Fire expands Suzanne Collins’ novel beyond the confines of the arena to tackle some seriously brutal truths – plugging gaps and sowing seeds for a two-part finale that will have to work hard to match its grit.
It’s been almost a year since Katniss and Peeta won the 74th Hunger Games, which means its time for Donald Sutherland to open the film with an unnecessary recap. Katniss is pissed off because she doesn’t want to be a celebrity; Peeta is pissed off because he thought his awkward cave fumble with Katniss actually meant something; Gale is pissed off because he thinks so too; President Snow is pissed off because his daughter has started wearing her hair like J-Law; and the plebs of Panem are pissed off because they have to work down the mines, scrounge for bread and sacrifice their children to a death-match reality TV show.
With everyone properly peeved, the scene is set for a very mopey opening act – saved by Snow’s decision to send in the stormtroopers and announce a twist to the 75th Games that means Katniss and Peeta are thown back into the arena. Facing blood rain, poison fog, angry baboons and actual grown-ups this time around, Katniss is way out her depth. Again.
Not that you’d know it from Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. Taking her post-Oscar fame publicly in her stride since she last picked up her bow, the 23-year-old actress has grown up as fast as her character. As mopey as the teenage love triangle almost gets, it’s the boys that do all the moping. Well on her way to becoming one of the greatest sci-fi heroines since Ripley, the avenger of District 12 is as undefined by her hidden vulnerability as she is by her inner strength; anchoring the series with an emotional realism that upstages everyone else in the film.
True, most of them are stuck in roles that haven’t developed much since we last met them. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is still an unlikeable wimp who cries every time he gets a paper cut, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is still a gormless lunk who doesn’t do anything, and Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are still hiding beneath candyfloss hair and panto outfits.
Luckily, new games means new blood. There’s fan-favourite pretty boys (Sam Claflin), nervous nerds (Jeffrey Wright) and gutsy girls (Jena Malone – threatening to out-attitude Lawrence) aplenty, but the real standout is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s gamemaker; finally giving Lawrence a decent sparring partner.
It’s all change behind the camera too, with new director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) upping the menace both in and out of the arena. Marauding monkeys and axe-wielding gladiators might be pretty scary, but it’s nothing compared to an armed policeman beating a political dissident to death. In fact, Catching Fire often reflects real world horrors so impassively it’s easy to forget you’re watching a kids movie. Until you see Stanley Tucci’s hair, that is…
Yes, the Capitol still looks like the Emerald City, the big spinning thing in the arena comes straight out of Total Wipeout and the film’s cutting edge is dulled down and camped up whenever things get too gnarly. Some obvious concessions are made to appease the book’s devout fans too (At 146 minutes, it seems like they tried to fit every bloody page in), but it’s hard to see how anyone could be too disappointed with the incendiary results.
Then again, if the rousing finale of Catching Fire is anything to go by, Mockingjay is going to burn the playhouse down…
Proving once again why Jennifer Lawrence deserves her Oscar, Catching Fire delivers on all the promise of Part 1 with a gutsier, tougher, better round of Games. The odds are forever in Mockingjay’s favour…