Catching Fire blazes bright

Murray Close

It says something that two of the biggest sensations in young adult literature over the past 10 years have featured heroines who keep more than one guy on the line at a time. No longer do the genre's bright young women sit around waiting for one Mr. Right to notice them. Both Stephenie Meyer's Twilight and Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games sagas invert Jan and Dean's Surf City ideal. Two boys for every girl! That ought to double the fun, but it multiplies the headaches.

Jennifer Lawrence's earthy enchantress, Katniss Everdeen, is just figuring that out in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second entry in the film franchise based on Collins's bodaciously successful novels. Catching Fire, directed by Francis Lawrence (taking the reins from Gary Ross), picks up exactly where the first movie left off. And I mean exactly. If you haven't seen the first picture or read the books, you'll need a 14-year-old girl to explain the intricacies to you: They're just way too 2012 for me to go into right now.

But basically, you should know that in the dystopian futuristic country of Panem, the 1 percent live in luxury while the 99 percent toil to keep the elite in the style to which they are accustomed. There are 12 districts' worth of those underlings, and, once a year, each territory must offer up two of its young people to participate in a televised event known as the Hunger Games, in which the unfortunate chosen ones are forced to kill one another off in an elaborate, controlled stadium environment. The prize: enough money (and food) to lift the winner's family out of poverty.

Katniss, an entrant from District 12, has survived the games, thanks to her crackerjack archery skills and even more impressive disdain for authority. Her neighbor and co-competitor, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who is not-so-secretly in love with her, has survived, too, but Katniss isn't sure how she feels. She's been best friends forever with another District 12 lad, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and, as Catching Fire opens, he catches her off-guard and plants a confusing kiss on her lips. Katniss is the sort of young woman, striding hither and thither with her ever-present archer's bow, who may not have room in her life for one guy. What's she supposed to do with two?

As it turns out, mere survival takes up most of her time. The evil elders of Panem, led by Donald Sutherland, recognize that her rebellious streak and celebrity status threaten their omnipotence. Their solution: forcing her to her compete in a sort of all-star Hunger Games playoff, devising even deadlier challenges than they did last time. Poison fog, blood rain, killer baboons with scary painted faces: The new mastermind behind all these Outward Bound exercises is Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, looking ordinary and pudgy and all the more sinister for it).

Catching Fire suffers from the movie equivalent of middle-book syndrome: The story is wayward and rangy, on its way to being something, maybe, but not adding up to much by itself. Still, it's entertaining as civics lessons go, and it's a more polished, assured picture than its predecessor. Director Lawrence, as in his adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, merges the naturalistic with the fantastic so gracefully that you can't see the seams.

Jennifer Lawrence, of course, is the real draw. Her Katniss is one of the better female role models, clearly a Champion of the People, but there's no sanctimony or pretense of false modesty. She gives the appearance of listening more than she talks, the opposite of what we usually get from today's feisty heroines. Somehow, Lawrence — even though her character is a proactive Diana the huntress — makes thinking look more dynamic than reacting. Her eyes say lots of things: "Get over yourself," "I'm not buying this," and "OK, show me." But sometimes they also say, "I don't know what I want." Lawrence is a movie star who's still believable as a girl. She's both on fire and in the process of becoming, and it's magnificent to watch.

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