Being the middle child is a bitch. Same goes for books and movies. By that standard, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – the second film culled from Suzanne Collins' bestselling trilogy – should be a placeholder, stuck between the older kid who gets all the glory and the baby who gets all the love.
Not this time. Catching Fire, which builds on the box-office and critical success of last year's Hunger Games, is spectacular in every sense of the word. For extra pow, see it in IMAX. It's also darker, deeper and more dangerously subversive. Does that mean you have to chill until the movie hits the arena and the action sweet spot? Yeah. Go with it.
Or just watch the sublime Jennifer Lawrence take the role of Katniss Everdeen to new levels of ferocity and feeling. Lawrence, 23 and freshly Oscar'ed for Silver Linings Playbook, expertly plays this reluctant warrior whose weapon of choice is a bow and arrow and whose conscience is her own. In the film's first scene, the camera finds Katniss not in the arena with her face marred by sweat and blood, but alone and lost in thought. How's that for daring greatly, especially in a blockbuster franchise?
Katniss ended the first chapter of this dystopian fable as a victor in the 74th Hunger Games, a survival-of-the-fittest reality show that sends home all its teen contestants, save the winner, in body bags. By bending the rules and making her lovesick friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) share her triumph, Katniss has earned the wrath of President Snow (Donald Sutherland, evil and loving it), who uses the games to quash the 12 districts that rebelled against the Capitol of Panem. Every year, a boy and a girl (ages 12 to 18) from each district are chosen by lottery to fight to the death in a televised gladiator event (the parallels to governments sending youth to useless wars are inescapable).
As Catching Fire begins, Katniss and Peeta are readying for their victory tour, pretending to be a couple, though Katniss' heart belongs to Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the boy she leaves behind. The romance is still a yawn. Unlike Twilight, in which a girl is torn between a vampire and a wolf, The Hunger Games gives Katniss the provocative choice of joining the one-percenters or becoming the leader of a revolution.
One guess what she decides. Besides, safety is no longer an option for Katniss after Snow invents a new set of games to be played only by former winners. Think of it as an all-star American Idol in which the losers buy the farm. Snow wants Katniss dead. "Patience," says Plutarch Heavensbee, the new gamesmaker played by – wait for it – a witty, wily Philip Seymour Hoffman in a performance that adds to the film's class-act casting choices. Woody Harrelson is in top form as Katniss' boozy mentor, Haymitch, as is Elizabeth Banks as PR handler Effie Trinket, Lenny Kravitz as stylist Cinna (his wedding dress for Katniss is killer) and Stanley Tucci, stealing every scene he's in as TV host Caesar Flickerman, possessed of the whitest, fakest teeth in Panem.
Of the newcomers to the games, save a star spot for Sam Claflin as Finnick, a charmer with a truly hidden agenda, and Jena Malone as Johanna, kicking ass in high style even when soaked in blood rain.
As for the games themselves (shot in Hawaii), they're well worth a nearly 90-minute wait, especially the rotating island, attack birds, rabid baboons and a rolling fog of poison gas. Kudos to director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), replacing Gary Ross, who took heat for his dizzying hand-held camera moves in the first film. Lawrence (no relation to his star) holds steady and finds the heat and the heart in the Collins-faithful script by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael deBruyn (a pseudonym for Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt). Forgive the rough patches and an ending as frustratingly abrupt as the book's. Pop-culture escapism can be thrilling when dished out by experts. Katniss is a character worth a handful of sequels. And Lawrence lights up the screen. You'll follow her anywhere.