It begins with what amounts to a 90-minute fashion show masquerading as a sci-fi epic, and it ends abruptly.
The Hunger Games is the most female-friendly/runway-ready sci-fi franchise ever, and Catching Fire, the second film in the four-film series, is meant to be a cliffhanger after all.
But once things get going — finally get under way — this humorless chatterbox of intrigues, rebellion and a love triangle that seems Twilight-y in its lovelessness packs in some real pathos. It might leave fans begging for more, and right away, but the rest of the universe can be excused for rolling its collective eyes and snapping, "Oh, for Peeta's sake, get on with it."
The story: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the victors in the 74th Hunger Games, portrayed in The Hunger Games (2012), are touring the land, sharing their "love story for the ages" at the behest of the Capitol, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
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Snow knows all, including the fact that Katniss and Peeta don't click as a couple.
Katniss also knows too much and senses the unrest in the land, which worries the daylights out of Snow. Perhaps she'll use her manufactured celebrity to inspire a revolt.
The powers that be cannot leave her and Peeta to their dull District 12 mining lives, where Katniss can share her real feelings with hunky miner Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
Their solution? The "next" Hunger Games, the 75th, the so-called "Quarter Quell," will round up lots of recent winners of the Games to fight to the death, to get these symbolic young lovers/would-be revolutionaries out of the way. Aiding President Snow's designs are game builder Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He envisions turning the public against Katniss.
The filmmakers spent more on production design for this wintry, woodsy sequel. Louisville native Lawrence has since won an Oscar and has grown into a formidable young woman, and Northern Kentucky native Hutcherson's voice has deepened, and he now has real screen presence. The acting is better, with Jeffrey Wright (Beetee), Amanda Plummer (Wiress), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason) and Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair) brought in as games players.
Lionsgate hired Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), and Constantine and I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence to handle this film and the upcoming pair of movies of novelist Suzanne Collins' final piece of the book trilogy, Mockingjay. That doesn't exactly pay dividends. Francis Lawrence is nobody's idea of an A-list sci-fi director.
Woody Harrelson's Haymitch Abernathy, the veteran of the Games who conspires to keep our two lovebirds alive, evolves into a nobler if still boozy mentor. Elizabeth Banks has even more outlandish costumes and makeup as Effie Trinket, the couple's PR consultant, but she gets nothing funny to say or play.
Only Stanley Tucci, all teeth and purple hair in a ponytail as TV host Caesar Flickerman, wrings laughs from this grim slog through the middle acts of the YA opus.
Not that it's supposed to be that amusing, but something is needed to break up the glumness. Deep thoughts about redirecting cynically manipulated celebrity, lump-in-the-throat moments at people rising up against their oppressors, a couple of memorable deaths and attempts at sacrifice are flat when there's nothing around them to serve as contrast.
Catching Fire has promising themes when young people trapped in a cutthroat competition question authority and try to reason their way out of a kill-or-be-killed fate.
But the sad realization sinks in, just as the fashion show is ending and the action movie is beginning, that this is as good as Lionsgate cares to make these pictures. The die is cast for the rest of the series.
Maybe Divergent, the Hunger Games knockoff due in March with Shailene Woodley and Ashley Judd, will be better.
'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language. Lionsgate. 2:26. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Movie Tavern, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.