Catching Fire is the connective tissue of The Hunger Games series, tasked with addressing the aftermath of the first installment while setting up the saga's endgame. The film opens smack-dab where last year's franchise-starter left off, all eyes on Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the improbable co-champions of the most recent Hunger Games, going through the motions of a Capitol-mandated victory-tour. Ms. Everdeen, it turns out, has become something of a folk-hero and symbol of hope to the impoverished districts, a notion President Snow (Donald Sutherland) wishes to dismantle in a very public manner. After multiple attempts at media-manipulated character assassination, Snow and game maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decide on a more literal approach, sending Katniss and Peeta into the arena to fight for their lives yet again.
This is Francis Lawrence's debut with the franchise, taking over directing duties from the first film's Gary Ross. Those who derided The Hunger Games' eye-turning aversion to violence and liberal use of hand-held cameras will find themselves more at home with Lawrence's smoother look, but parents deciding wether Catching Fire is ok for their pre-teens likely will not. This is a much grittier affair; it shows death, revels in economic and romantic hopelessness, and even makes time to show one of its hunky heartthrobs getting whipped senseless, skin filleted for all to see. Said heartthrobs tend to take a beating in these movies, the gender role-reversal only heightened as Katniss continues to refute both Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta's affections in favor of focusing on the dire task at hand (it's almost like our heroine is a real person with her priorities straight or something?!). There are times when all this gore and misery can feel a bit excessive, but you have to admire a creative team that's actually taking the story at hand seriously, exploring its darker edges, and mostly refusing to pander. A belief and desire to do right by the material is evident in every frame.
Which really only makes the film's shortcomings that much more frustrating. Errors in continuity abound, a character with a bloody cheek in one shot seen untarnished in the very next. The score is a mess, about twenty different themes all thrown in, not a single one sticking. Occasional scenes feel like pulls from the book that don't actually make sense in the time-limited scope of the film, while others that seem monumental happen quickly, and are never addressed again. The actors, uniformly solid in their roles, have some markedly bad takes that likely could have been fixed with a do-over or two. These are mere cosmetic issues for which quick-fixes are readily available; the film just feels sloppy, like a few more months on set or in the editor's room might have yielded something truly special, but time would not permit. It's like being given the most incredible foods, spices, cutlery, and kitchenware in the world, and only being allotted an hour to prepare it all. It still tastes good, but the feeling that the whole might be lesser than the sum of its parts is difficult to shake. Catching Fire might be more good than bad, but there's certainly a lot of both.
What strikes one most while watching Panem's latest escapades is just how sturdy and built-to-last this series really is. The Hunger Games franchise has a whole mess of feathers in cap; an intriguing and well-established world, solid actors playing characters that actually make impressions on the audience, an art department capable of working wonders (costume designer Trish Summerville should be working on her Oscar acceptance speech right now), an expert and unique take on your standard juicy love-triangle, and a bonafide superstar in Jennifer Lawrence. She's been worlds better in other films, including the first picture, but 23-year-old has an innate ability to hold the screen, and a kind of charisma that can't be taught. She's a natural, though being flanked by veterans like Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Toby Jones, and Jena Malone in minor roles never really hurt anyone. Catching Fire is far from perfect, but it's a solid entertainment, presented with class, intrigue, and excitement. It accomplishes the ultimate goal of any middle entry in a series; it leaves you chomping at the bit for the next one.