'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' is even better than the first film

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'Catching Fire' stars Jennifer Lawrence, who is even stronger in her role as Katniss Everdeen than in the first installment.

Murray Close/Lionsgate/AP
'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' stars Jennifer Lawrence (l.) and Josh Hutcherson (r.).

Catnip – I mean Katniss – Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) gets more than she bargained for in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” After winning the seventy-fourth annual Hunger Games and looking forward to some well-deserved R&R back home in District 12, she and co-winner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are sent on a “Victors’ Tour” of the districts. Worse, nefarious President Snow (Donald Sutherland), fearing Katniss’s prole appeal to stir the oppressed masses, seeks to eliminate her by staging an extra-special anniversary Quarter Kvell – I mean Quell – Games in which previous victors face off against each other. In other words, for Katniss, it’s back to the drawing board – and the archery range.

This second in the “Hunger Games” trilogy, directed by Francis Lawrence, has many of the virtues and somewhat fewer defects as its predecessor (which was directed by Gary Ross). The action is smoothly sustained, the dystopian weirdness is alternately creepy and somewhat less cloying, and Jennifer Lawrence is, if anything, even stronger in the role. She’s a movie star who can really act – a fearsome combo. Stanley Tucci is back, his teeth bigger and whiter than ever, as TV personality Caesar Flickerman, and there’s a welcome new addition to the zoo: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. Gotta love these names.

As teencentric franchises go, I much prefer “The Hunger Games” to the blessedly expired “Twilight” films. For one thing, they employ much better actors. My favorite: Amanda Plummer, one of the best and most underused actresses in America, as one of the Quell contestants. Like Jennifer Lawrence, she can transform pulp shenanigans into something soulful. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.)

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