Hunger Games: Catching Fire

THE RUSHED: Jostling sequel Hunger Games: Catching Fire has a severe case of middle-child syndrome; it's only there as a conduit to the two part sequel.

The military-industrial-entertainment complex of futuristic Panem celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games by staging a pit-match with more than a dozen badly-introduced previous winners.  (A lot of them are actors we want to see, such as Jeffrey Wright made up to look like Lenin.) The traumatized Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, still solid and enigmatic; an action heroine to reckon with) must fight alongside the boy whose life she saved in the last film. He's Peeta, played by the inert Josh Hutcherson. The Government is propagandizing a trumped up romance between Katniss and Peeta, while the Girl on Fire's old flame Gale (Liam Hemsworth) languishes in coal country. But "Bow" comes before "boyfriend" in Katniss' dictionary. The most dangerous game commences in a tropical thunderdome, beset by mustard gas, annoying birds and purple-assed baboons.

As in the Harry Potter films, it's the character actors that wake this up. The Zardozian outfits suggest that the costumers and the make-up people get to have the most fun in this amazingly solemn sci-fi parody of our own gargantuan American excesses. Stanley Tucci corners the market on humor here as the smarmy TV host Caesar, with his cotton-candy purple mullet.  (He looks like a living ventriloquist dummy.) Playing the new torture-master, Phillip Seymour Hoffman's tunnel-visioned viciousness enlivens a few scenes, as does Johanna (Jena Malone) the interesting bad girl to the solid Katniss, or the Faith to Katniss's Buffy.

We don't get a better idea of how Panem exists here, except as twittery partygoers and proles standing around giving the Boy Scout salute. Donald Sutherland, as the aging President Rose, glowers, sneers and personally delivers information that a smarter dictator would keep to himself. Sutherland honors the conventions; when he's thwarted, he gasps "It's not possible!" We know Rose is declining, but it's strange how Panem doesn't have the interesting power struggles that commence when an elderly totalitarian leader has no clear successor.  Director Francis Lawrence, of I Am Legend, softens the distressing kid-killing violence, but he composes as if for the cellphone screen, a matter visible even in IMAX.

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

PG-13; 146 min.

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