DISAPPOINTINGLY COMPETENT, 2012's The Hunger Games... well, at least it got the basics right. It was a fine adaptation—totally, forgettably, blandly fine. So it's a pretty excellent surprise that its sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is an order of magnitude better: Catching Fire will please whatever it is that Hunger Games fans call themselves (Hangries? Katnips? Peetaphiles?), but also stands as something fun and intense and thrilling. What makes all this even more surprising is that the book it's based on is the weakest of Suzanne Collins' YA trilogy; if Hunger Games was a so-so movie based on a great book, Catching Fire is a great movie based on a so-so book.
Like the latter Harry Potter films, Catching Fire is proudly inscrutable to anyone who hasn't read the books: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) find themselves touring Panem after winning their first Hunger Games. But Katniss barely has time to have PTSD before—surprise!—she gets yanked back into another deadly tournament, this time fighting other past winners. This time it's in a jungle!
Collins' Catching Fire reads like a retread—but as a film, director Francis Lawrence and writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt make Katniss' return to the battlefield a deeper, darker, smarter journey. The characters are stronger, the action's more exciting, and the mounting sense of doom is... doomier. While Lawrence and her supporting cast—including Hunger Games veterans Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, and Stanley Tucci—are predictably good, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jena Malone add a welcome dose of unpredictability. With all these characters and all that plot, Catching Fire takes a while to get going—but once it does, it barrels along with speed and purpose. By the end, it sets up the two-film adaptation of Collins' third and best book, Mockingjay, more or less perfectly. If things keep heading in this direction, the Mockingjay movies are going to be fucking great.