For a while, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire seems like a realization of the potential showcased in the disjointed original film.

The moody, color-bled cinematography, Francis Lawrence’s smooth direction and an increasingly mature tone help to enhance the series’
social and political commentary.

Following its strong start, unfortunately, Catching Fire takes a sudden turn that sabotages the narrative and derails the momentum of its
most interesting aspect- the impending rebellion of the oppressed outlying districts from the wealthy, excessive Capitol.

The defiance of heroes Katniss and Peeta at the conclusion of the previous film ignites insurrection within several districts, reducing them
to police states.

The film wonderfully illustrates the dire situation while creating a palpable atmosphere of fear and dread.

A particularly powerful sequence sees an elderly man shot by authorities for simply acknowledging the death of one of his district’s
children during the previous games.

At least I think that’s what he was doing.  The films still haven’t explained what that three-fingered hand signal means.  Like the original,
Catching Fire does little to endear itself to those of us who have never read the books.

In spite of the confusion, the themes are effective and Catching Fire builds to what non-readers assume will be the beginning of a
revolution.  And that’s where the story loses its nerve.  Katniss and Peeta are abruptly thrust back into action when they’re enlisted to again
participate in The Hunger Games; an attempt by the evil powers to wipe out all symbols of hope and quell any dissention.

The great sense of dystopian danger and defiance the film sets up is subverted as the focus returns the to the franchise’s trademark
setting.

This unfortunate plot convenience quickly devolves the film into a rehash of the original.  Katniss and Peeta return to the Capitol, are
interviewed by Stanley Tucci again, show off their skills to sponsors once more and, of course, they find themselves back in the forest
pitted against a host of fellow survivors.

At least this time we don’t have to contend with director Gary Ross’ maddeningly frantic camerawork.  Director Lawrence gives the action
sequences a seamless, natural feel that doesn’t resort to the handheld gimmicks of the original.  A visual upgrade, however, isn’t enough
to justify the rerun.

It’s also once again a problem that the supporting cast is far more interesting than the leads.  During the games, the most entertaining
characters leave the film and we are left with Katniss, who continues to be a rather mundane central figure.

The talented Jennifer Lawrence is wasted in this role that requires little more than deadpan line readings.

There’s also a horribly forced love triangle that does very little to endear us to Katniss and feels a bit Twilight-y at times.  And that’s not a
comparison any of us want to be making.

The second half of the film telegraphs exactly where it’s going.  When the games come to a crashing end (Thanks to some absurdly good
foresight from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character) and the big twist is revealed, it comes as little surprise.

Thankfully, the film’s hollow cliffhanger ending at least sets up a more intriguing premise for the next film.  It also makes the second half of
Catching Fire seem superfluous in hindsight; simply an exercise in delaying the impending rebellion of the districts.

In spite of its many flaws, Catching Fire is actually a very slight upgrade over The Hunger Games thanks to its improved production value
and direction.  And even if it fumbles in following through, its increased sense of dread and danger is palpable.

There are a handful of accomplished action sequences.  The best involves a rolling cloud of poisonous smoke that chases our heroes.  
Wait a minute, a tropical island setting with deadly smoke?  I guess author Suzanne Collins is a Lost fan.

Lawrence handles these sequences well (apart from some overly dark photography), but the greatest sense of threat comes from the
Orwellian rule of the Capitol.

The maneuvering of the evil President Snow (A devious and frightening Donald Sutherland) in trying to control public perception is a very
powerful thread.  The story doesn’t simply present its evil government; it shows how they can control their people through the media.  In
this case, they employ a combination of gladiatorial combat and reality television- two of the supremely evil mainstream indulgences in
human history.

What a shame all that allegory is squandered to maintain the franchise’s brand identity.

Admittedly, Catching Fire is a film that may please fans of the books.  The initiated will be able to look past the inherent plot flaws that were
present in the source material.  And what they get is a competent film, but not one that is especially satisfying when evaluated on its own
merit.

While the broad strokes and concepts here are strong, Catching Fire burns out after its initial spark.

* * ½
(out of four)
THE HUNGER GAMES:
CATCHING FIRE

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam
Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks

Music by: James Newton Howard

Cinematography by: Jo Willems

Released: November 22, 2013; 146 Minutes