The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire probably shouldn't work. It's a sequel - the second of four films adapted from Suzanne Collins' literary trilogy.
The film is padded to a length of two hours and 26 minutes. It adds a main character - gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). And love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) returns. Hoffman is laconic, and Hemsworth is bland. Not much there.
But what keeps The Hunger Games: Catching Fire alive and kicking is its transcendent strain of humanity.
Every time the film starts to veer into sadism or absurdity, its humanity yanks it back into credible focus. Loyalty, sacrifice, and honor survive.
The humanity is most embodied in the likable main trio of characters and the actors who portray them. Forceful Jennifer Lawrence is back as the shimmering, bold Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is vitality incarnate. But in Catching Fire she has to exist on the fearful edge of panic.
Sober-faced Josh Hutcherson portrays the calm, supportive Peeta, who with Katniss won the 74th Hunger Games.
And Woody Harrelson, with a glint in his eye, is the gruff, scruffy but cunning advisor Haymitch.
The three make an odd but endearing trinity of decency.
Adding to the humanity are several other characters - especially fashion designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and aged Mags (Lynn Cohen). Both take fateful risks to serve good.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire takes place in the aftermath of the 74th Hunger Games. President Snow (Donald Sutherland channeling Stalin) sees Katniss as a serious threat to the capitol, because of her popularity. She and Peeta are taking a tour of the Districts, seemingly in love, though it's all pretense. Snow plans to destroy her image and kill her.
With his new gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) Snow creates the 3rd Quarter Quell, which will pit past winners of the past Hunger Games, with only one surviver.
In some ways, The Hunger Games is a satire on Reality television (such as Survivor), especially with its mindless audiences. The Hunger Games take it to vicious extremes. But Catching Fire also shows the value of teamwork that at times exists on Reality TV.
A few of the characters smack of over-the-top exploitation. The merry grotesquerie of Caesar (Stanley Tucci) is still paramount. At one point, sitting by his side is Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones). Claudius is a caricature saying, "Fire in the House." You wouldn't know Toby Jones had any talent. You should see him in Berberian Sound Studio.
The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn (a pseudonym) has a few flat spots, but it basically it serves its talented cast well.
Director Francis Lawrence directs with flair, though there are sequences of riding and walking that stall matters. His powerful use of the ferocious apes has shock and is memorable. Fear strikes.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ends with an image of the face of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss.
We trust that face.