‘Games’ worth playing

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Murray Close/AP
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are dealing with newfound, tightly controlled fame in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”

Skilled director makes story work this time around

Anyone who felt that the workmanlike adaptation of the first Hunger Games missed the bull’s-eye, take heart. Catching Fire is the new The Empire Strikes Back, a smashing sci-fi sequel that takes its blockbuster franchise into deeper, smarter, more dramatically engaging territory.

New director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants) has a solid grasp of science fiction and romance. The conflicts are clear, the characters fully fleshed, the lethal adventure urgent, and the tender interludes poignant.

Suzanne Collins’ bestsellers, set in a fascist, post-civil war North America in which the middle class is extinct, are a potent sociopolitical allegory. In dystopian Panem, young warriors must kill each other to survive. The battles are packaged as gladiatorial reality shows designed to keep the populace disengaged and submissive.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a stoic rural teenager who entered the Games in the first film to save her younger sister from certain death in combat. The role showcases Lawrence’s uncanny ability to make a tiny, apprehensive furrow of the brow speak volumes, and to tackle bigger-than-life scenes without going over the top. No matter how many times she’s called on to display desperation and resolve (and it’s a lot of times), Lawrence makes it fresh and convincing.

Having survived the first round of reality-TV carnage, Katniss has become a national celebrity. Her public life is scripted as a romantic fantasy and played out for countless TV viewers. Katniss, a coal miner’s daughter, hates the pretense and glitz of stardom. She resists the faux romance manufactured with her Games teammate Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). That reluctance adds tension and irony to the slow-burning attraction between the two survivors offstage.

Her popularity has made Katniss a political figure and an avatar for the hopes of the poor. Concerned that she could become the figurehead for an uprising, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) orders his games designer to create a competition that will eliminate her and ruin her heroic reputation in the process. Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) proposes an All-Star Game featuring the survivors of earlier combats. When the action moves to the arena, unexpected alliances and hidden agendas reveal a hedge-maze of new wrinkles.

Working from a script by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Oblivion), director Lawrence leavens this fundamentally serious movie with bleak, caustic satire. Stanley Tucci returns as soulless TV host Caesar Flickerman, whose awesomely stilted stage presence raises insincerity to high art. Elizabeth Banks wears ever more bizarre couture as Katniss and Peeta’s image consultant.

It takes skilled filmmaking to walk the line between ghastly realism and cranked-up absurdity, and this movie has the creative vitality to make both aspects of the story work. There’s a clarity and purpose to every shot.

MOVIE RATING

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

**** 1/2

Rated PG-13, 146 minutes.

Opens Friday.


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