Catching Fire: Slow Burn With a Sizzling Star

The endlessly watchable Jennifer Lawrence is the main reason to see this middle-child movie in the 'Hunger Games' franchise

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Murray Close / Lionsgate

The big dazzle moment in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire comes not in Katniss Everdeen’s home District, nor in the faux-jungle where the Games are fought. It’s on stage in the Capitol of Panem, that future American dystopia — in fantasy fiction, is there any other -topia? — the night before the 75th Hunger Games, when Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the TV host with the Guy Smiley smarminess and the phosphorescent teeth, is interviewing Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), the expert archer from District 12.

Outfitted in a spectacular white chiffon wedding dress with silver metal wings, Katniss strides down the runway and commences to spin. The gown bursts into flame and morphs into a slinky black outfit, also with wings, that represents the mockingjay, the icon of Panem’s rebels. I am not your plaything, Katniss’ quick change says to the Capitol swells; I am the dark surging spirit of revolution. Scandal. Sensation! Show biz! Rarely have a political declaration and a fashion statement merged so stunningly.

(READ: Lev Grossman’s conversation with Suzanne Collins and Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence)

Bravo to costume designer Trish Summerville and to Tex Saverio, the Indonesian who created that gloriously gaudy wedding gown. (Saverio has also coutured for Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian, and you can tell.) But it says something about the mixed pleasures and longueurs of this erratically entertaining movie that one wants to applaud the dressmakers before mentioning the director, Austrian music-video grad Francis Lawrence, or the screenwriters: Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and “Michael deBruyn,” a pseudonym for Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 scripter Michael Arndt.

The climactic third Quarter Quell, a televised Most Dangerous Game pitting victors of the previous killer Olympics against one another, has its kicks and surprises. But the real fun is glomming the glam in the frocks sported by Katniss, her competitors and her dizzy escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), whose gaiety is strained, nearly hysterical, and whose outré garb is so tight it seems ready to crush her, like a Lycra python. You’ll come for Survivors All-Stars and stay for Project Runway All Stars.

(READ: The Katniss Conundrum: Is She Okay For Young Kids?)

Last year’s The Hunger Games, a box-office champ with nearly $700 million worldwide, introduced the notion of an annual killer Olympics. Two “tributes” representing each section of Panem, from posh District 1 all the way down to Katniss’s Appalachian disaster zone, District 12, hunted one another for televised sport. Volunteering in place of her kid sister Primrose (Willlow Shields), and leaving her hunky, stammering beau Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth — Thor’s younger brother) back home, Katniss managed to save herself and her fellow 12er Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Her winning ruse: she only pretended to eat the fatal berries.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Hunger Games)

Vexed to the max that two Victors had emerged, and both from his least favorite District, President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is pleased to proclaim the Quarter Quell, a kill-off pitting past Victors who had been told that winning a Game earned them a lifetime sinecure of luxury and, well, not dying in gruesome combat. Under the direction of new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose Cheshire Cat smile conceals no end of connivance, Katniss will vie with Peeta against some expert foes, including  the preening hunk Fiddick (Sam Claflin) and the punkster Johanna (Jena Malone). May the best Victor live.

Portent outweighs action in an episode that builds tension and marks time until the movie series’ conclusion, Mockingjay, which — following the lead of films based on the final books in the Harry Potter and Twilight Saga series, and honoring the older Hollywood tradition of greedily extending popular franchises — will be made as two films, for release next Nov. and in 2015. Then, finally, all Panem-demonium promises to break loose, and the war games will burst into real war.

(READ: Eliana Dockterman on 5 Ways Katniss Is Better Than Twilight‘s Bella)

“Would you like to be in a real war?” whispers President Snow at the beginning of Catching Fire, as if he’s offering poisoned candy to a child. “No,” replies Katniss, and Snow says, “Neither would I.” In a rebellion of the serfs, Snow could lose his post as the purring tyrant of Panem, and Katniss could lose her life. Yet the war drums, perhaps as imitated by that chimerical creature the mockingjay, start to throb in this middle-child installment. The coded message is urgent but the movie’s tempo is languorous.

Collins has said the books were inspired by the Greek myth of the Minotaur (who demanded the sacrifice of seven boys and seven girls until Theseus killed the beast) and the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome — here less bread for the poor provinces, more circuses for the one-percenters. The Hunger Games is no less indebted to a zillion other action movies and their sequels, in which the hero or heroine of the first movie must then confront another star adversary. Katniss tangling with Fiddick and Johanna echoes the battles of Alien and Predator, Freddie and Jason.

(READ: Collins — “I was destined to write a gladiator game”)

The series also puts you in mind of reality shows, and their TV kin, that go heavy on the up-close-and-personal aspects of the players. Like Super Bowl Sunday, when more TV time is wasted on pre-game folderol than is spent on actual footballCatching Fire moseys through half of its 2-hour-and-26-minute running time, setting up Katniss’s rivalries, and dropping hints of things to come, before the Quell Games begin. The first half concentrates on Katniss’s post-Victor stress disorder (“I should have eaten the berries”), her shock at the grim reality of the other Districts she tours and her resolve to join the rebellion. “I’m not going anywhere,” she tells the faithful Gale.” I’m gonna stay right here, cause all kind of trouble.”

Once in the jungle, the movie sparks to life with pools of scalding water, attacks by evil monkeys and Katniss’ complicated relationships with Johanna (two alpha females vying for queen of the pride) and Fiddick. (This warrior woman has more potential suitors than any Disney princess.) She also befriends an older couple, Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer). The two-time Tony winners (he for Angels in America and Topdog/Underdog, she for Agnes of God and Pygmalion) could have been content slumming in genre fare. Instead, they invest their roles with intelligence and urgency. As in so many films, Plummer is again the feral lady; some day she may get a movie role that allows her to speak in complete, coherent sentences.

(READ: Lev Grossman’s review of the Hunger Games book)

Francis Lawrence, who replaced Gary Ross to direct the last three Hunger Games films, previously made the vigorous Constantine (Keanu Reeves vs. the antichrist), Will Smith’s post-Apocalypse vampire movie I Am Legend and the soppy period drama Water for Elephants. Taking advantage of the bigger budget ($130 million to the first film’s $78 million), he brings scope if not grandeur to the early section, size if not sizzle to the Games.

There’s a natural lapse in tension from The Hunger Games — when the strategy was kill-or-be-killed, and a human or synthetic predator could emerge at any moment — to Catching Fire, where there’s more alliance-building than manslaughter. We also wish the Caesar segments sashayed with a more divoon decadence. But that, for the producers of Catching Fire, would be quibbling. The director’s main job is to find a hundred ways to film his leading lady in closeup: Lawrence shooting Lawrence.

(READ: Corliss on Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook)

That’s fine with us, since watching this actress, from her breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone to her emergence as a star, has been an eerie, fulfilling pleasure. Since the first film, the 23-year-old has won an Oscar (for Silver Linings Playbook) and cemented her rep as America’s most watchable young star. Her sullen face sponges up the emotions of other characters, and of the viewer. Spinning in that wedding dress, or glaring in wary repose, Lawrence catches fire on screen. She’ll make a superb La Pasionaria when Panem has a real war in the Mockingjay films.

Maybe they will transcend fan fodder and offer the wonder of superior popular entertainment. Whatever Katness wears, here’s hoping that third — and fourth — time’s the charm.