The Hunger Games truly catches fires

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      Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Woody Harrelson. Rated PG.

      Is this a first for an onscreen underwater fight between a human and a baboon? If so, recommend! Also, since we value such visuals, it’s nice to actually be able to see what’s going on in the energetic and unexpectedly tense The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The first movie of this series featured the kind of handheld-camera high jinks that made you wonder if they just gave the equipment to some nearby primate and went off to lunch.

      If you’ve been meaning to read Suzanne Collins’s young-adult sci-fi trilogy—or are still patiently waiting for someone to read the books to you—worry not, friend. It’s pretty great being surprised by Part 2 and by who will be friend or foe to our braid-loving, postapocalyptic archer-heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Or, as her handsomely blank beau Gale (Liam Hemsworth) blankly and handsomely calls her: “Catnip”.

      Since Katniss and faux beau (or is he?) Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) snuffed all their equally youthful competitors in the fascist-government-orchestrated Hunger Games, things have gotten even grimmer. Bad Santa, I mean, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sends Katniss and Peeta on a whistle-stop tour of dystopian USA, aka Panem (with their handlers, still cannily played by Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks), to quell the oppressed, angry masses, then tosses them into an All-Star Hunger Games. Actually, given the new tropical environment, it’s like Survivor but with literal backstabbing.

      With her crazy-punchy charisma, Lawrence pretty much kept the first movie’s head above water. This time, she gets actual help from director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), who captures both chilly government evil—and the stirrings of those who would subvert it—and some totally gripping Games action. The baboons are just the beginning. (I’ll probably never write that sentence again.)

      Oh, in casting news, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer play a pair of buff, Schwarzeneggerian competitors. Just kidding: they play excellently super-weird competitors. And Philip Seymour Hoffman drolly plays the new gamesmaker. His name is Plutarch Heavensbee, for which someone should apologize.