Lawrence-Hunger-Games-Catching-FireSometimes the sequel really is better than the original. That is arguably the case with Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. While not without a modicum of faults, the film is a revved up version of its original that remains engaging and entertaining throughout.

The movie follows the Suzanne Collins’ novel fairly closely, straying in only a few inconsequential areas. It begins a few months after the first ended – Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have moved into Victor’s Village, but neither is particularly happy with their lives.  Katniss shies away from attention and keeps some distance between herself and Peeta, who she’s supposed to be publicly in love with. At the same time, she still hangs out with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) who is in love with her, steals some kisses from her, but remains upset with the Peeta situation.

Katniss and Peeta embark a victory tour across the country during which anti-Capitol fervor is evident and rebellious activity is combatted with brute military force. Katniss has reluctantly become a symbol of the revolution while she simultaneously tries protect herself and family by continuing the façade of a love affair with Peeta.

In an apparent effort to undermine Katniss’ standing, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) announces that the 75th Hunger Games (known as a quarter quell) will be exclusively limited to past champions. As the lone female champion from District 12, Katniss is forced back into the arena, later to be joined by Peeta, despite her protestations. In order to survive, Katniss must also ally herself with other tributes that include Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), Wiress (Amanda Plummer), and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright). Together, they attempt to navigate the treachery wrought by new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

One of the weaknesses of the book is the first 120 pages or so in which Katniss is seemingly moping around District 12. Fortunately, this film version is able to fast forward right through that and focus on the components of Collins’ novel that are more interesting. While the book is written from Katniss’ point of view – and includes every single one of her thoughts, no matter how trite and annoying – the film is much stronger taking a third-person view.

Jennifer Lawrence puts in a predictably strong performance as the lead character. She conveys Katniss’ uncertainties and vulnerabilities just as well as her strength and resolve. The only weakness in her role comes in the flimsy lines of dialogue written for her in interactions that take place with Peeta and Gale. While the lines may have been lifted right from the novel, it’s sometimes hard to believe that she really cares for either man as much as she says.

Hutcherson is somewhat disappointing as Peeta. While the book makes him out to be a telegenic individual who is a naturally smooth speaker on camera, he comes across as underwhelming in this movie. Throughout the film, he just seems weak and immature, and it’s hard to see why Katniss cares for him as much as she does.

Woody Harrelson reprises his role as Haymitch, and while he’s a terrific actor, the film certainly minimizes the constant state of drunkenness that he appears to be in throughout the novel. Lenny Kravitz comes back as Cinna and seems to phone in this performance. While Kravitz was one of the highlights of the first film, he seems bored with this role. It’s as if he just wanted an extra paycheck. Elizabeth Banks also returns as Effie Trinket, and she does a fine job of portraying the evolution of the capitol character.

Two newcomers who truly shine are Malone and Hoffman. Malone brings a level of brashness and sass to the screen that we’ve seldom seen before. She has a particularly memorable scene in an elevator, and her performance could catapult her into bigger films playing stronger female characters. Hoffman is always a welcome a presence on the screen, and his performance as Heavensbee could not have been more perfect. One deviation from the novel comes in scenes with Heavensbee and Snow, where Hoffman shines, offering more than meets the eye.

While the first Hunger Games film had its fair share of action, Catching Fire kicks the level of suspense up a notch. Rather than spending time on introducing a new world to its audience, Catching Fire is simply a much more enjoyable popcorn flick. The twists and turns in the plot keep you engaged, such that it feels much shorter than its listed two hours and 26 minutes.

Some of the dialogue does feel a little flimsy, reminiscent of say, Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala in Attack of the Clones, but director Francis Lawrence did prove many of his doubters wrong, improving upon Gary Ross’ original and making easily his best film. There’s a certain energy to Catching Fire that didn’t quite exist with its predecessor. It’s almost as if the film has a consistent “fire” burning underneath it throughout.