"The Hunger Games"

Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, left), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, center), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, right) in "The Hunger Games." (Courtesy of Lionsgate / October 4, 2012)

Gary Ross's adaptation of the first of Suzanne Collins's “Hunger Games” books was both a critical and commercial smash, ending up with last year's third-highest domestic gross (which currently makes it 14 on the all-time list). It made Jennifer Lawrence a star, guaranteed the filming of the remaining two books, and pleased most everyone.

Nonetheless, Ross didn't sign on for No. 2, and the producers brought in Francis Lawrence — best known for Will Smith's “I Am Legend” and presumably no relation to his like-named star — to direct “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” It seems clear that he was asked to follow Ross's template closely; if there are any major stylistic changes, they're pretty subtle. As a result, this new episode is as good or close to it. (The same could be said of their source books, as well.)

The story picks up with Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) having to make a victory tour of the country's 12 districts. They don't want to, but, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) using their families' lives as an inducement, they have little choice but to do the Capitol's bidding. They plan on faking their way through the tour, smiling, acting like lovebirds, and reading speeches prepared by the authorities. They quickly discover, however, that the defiance that allowed them to survive the first film's games has sparked a spirit of rebellion among the 99%.

Snow knows that he has to defuse this by humiliating Katniss, so, throwing rules and tradition out the window, he declares that this year's participants will be chosen from within the pool of previous winners — what Alex Trebek would call a Tournament of Champions. Since Katniss is the only female winner from District 12, her selection is assured.



This means that — as in the source material — the action of “Catching Fire” is more or less a replay of its predecessor, though in a different, more obviously political, context. Most of the contestants, like Katniss, recognize that their enemy is the Capitol, not each other. Of course, amid all this, Katniss' confused feelings toward Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) become even more confused. More significant is her growing sense of her responsibility to the people vs. her family, as she unwillingly becomes a symbol of the brewing revolution.

Virtually the entire supporting cast has returned — Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, and Andy Jones. Added to the mix are Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Amanda Plummer, Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone, all of whom are memorable.

The visual rendering of the presidential palace is as unreal as the Emerald City, which was likely its inspiration. In terms of CGI effects, the horde of vicious baboons this time is much more believably rendered than the horde of vicious canine “muttations” in the first film.

Most of the many killings are either off-screen or shot cleanly with little gore. Still, some of the other violence — a torture scene, for instance — might be a bit much for younger kids. The PG-13 rating seems just about right.

It's hard to imagine anyone who liked “The Hunger Games” disliking this one. And, while “Catching Fire” reiterates enough of the earlier events to probably stand alone, it is vastly more effective for those who have seen its predecessor.

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ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).