Barely recovered from her first Hunger Games, Katniss (Lawrence) is devastated by the announcement of the 75th Anniversary Quarter Quell games in which only previous champions will compete and is likely rigged by the Capitol so that she will either betray the rebellion or die or, ideally, both.
We’ll do this back to front, and get the downside out the way first, because, HG-convert or not, this much-hyped sequel does most of what you would ask of it, expanding the mythology, offering performances of greater nuance and feeling, and upping the volume of gladiatorial teen-sadism no end. You’ll come out drained in a way few blockbusters seem to care about anymore — sapped by the tension of convincing human peril. Like the movie in question, let’s build to the big finish.
So yes, it’s true, beat for beat, it is the same movie as the first.
We begin out amongst the mining-zone miseries of District 12 (fingers crossed they rope in a prawn from District 9 sometime soon) where Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is endeavouring to cope with life, soon to be burdened as both figurehead for the quietly-mustering rebellion (under the alias “Mockingjay”) and pawn in the games of the totalitarian boot boys of the Capitol, a B-movie concentrate of Nazis, Romans, Stormtroopers, Republican Party and President Donald Sutherland, big on slithery commandments to snuff out insurgency. Generally taking a more muscular approach, newly incumbent director Francis Lawrence (taking over from Gary Ross), wraps these early scenes in dystopian grey, a colour-starved bleakness huddling beneath snow-clouds of oppression like a 12-rated version of The Road that never quite shakes its resemblance to the bit where Derek Zoolander visits his family.
From here, as various intrigues are set into motion, we take an super-train ride up the colour chart to the florid sci-fi garnish of The Capitol (The Capitol’s capital) where the cheesy pre-Games hoopla, as hosted by unctuous TV-peacock Stanley Tucci, oozes over the ‘faked’ romance between Katniss and Peeta (the increasingly square Josh Hutcherson). The love triangle is sensibly downplayed. Katniss thwacks kisses on both Peeta and homebound stiff Gale (Liam Hemsworth) — neither of whom, quite frankly, are fit to lay a pinky on her quiver — before concluding, reasonably, that she really hasn’t the time for romantic entanglements. Thankfully, everyone gets on with not dying.
Amid tasty training sequences to remind us how lethal Katniss is with bow and pout, Philip Seymour Hoffman strolls in apparently not bothering with a costume to give a surprisingly ineffective performance as Plutarch Heavensbee, most merciless of all Games makers. Did his miss the memo about The Capitol’s barking mad techno-satirical super-rich with Hogwarty names? A caste exemplified by Elizabeth Banks’ gilt-edged Aunt Sally Effie Trinket. And will everyone cheer come the Han Solo-in-Carbonite non-ending, satisfied that apocalyptic events have been set in motion in preparation for the final two parts of The Hunger Games fourfold trilogy?
If things are sounding overly negative, they really shouldn’t. Concentrating on Katniss’ immediate dilemmas and faltering resolve, the film moves gear by gear toward its masterstroke — the Hunger Games itself. And once thrust into the bedevilment of the newly pimped-up arena, you realise all this preamble has been finely measured. Like The Capitol’s twisted audience, we are raring to go. And the film delivers absolutely where it should — an exhilarating hothouse junglescape, Dagobah by way of Kurtz’s compound, delectably accessorised with prefab hostility. Between random forcefields, poisonous mists, and an army of psychopathic baboons, Katniss must contend with time-controlled floods, lightning bolts and a babbling Amanda Plummer. With his variety of Hawaiian location, tangible set, and seamless CG, director-Lawrence has gone as visceral as the rating will allow.
Rather than Darwinian fray, the players divide into frail factions, and those not au fait with the books are granted the frisson of not knowing where treachery might fall, and these fellow contestants are a much more untrustworthy and memorable bunch. Sam Claflin, pumped and cocky, has a ball as self-proclaimed big-shot Finnick Odair; Jena Malone adds a bit of XX-rivalry as the saucy Johanna Mason; and Jeffery Wright does fine kook as brainy ex-champ Beetee. Even then, this is truly a franchise thriving on a single performance. Defying rote heroics and sidestepping those solemn Frodoisms lurking in the role, Lawrence seeks out the complex, human and earthy in Katniss, still the beating heart and total triumph of these movies. Terrified and determined, gorgeous and real, we’re with this teen Spartacus to the bitter end now.
Whatever the flaws, many from the books, this second grittier, more confident round of Hunger Games thrills us into submission.