Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) — "girl on fire," District 12 tribute and reigning co-champion of the 74th Hunger Games — is something of a wild card. That's what makes her dangerous to the autocratic government of post-apocalyptic Panem, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland). And that's what makes her appealing as a hero — both of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games novels, and of the subsequent film adaptations.
Yes, Katniss is a compelling character, but what makes her compelling is the edge she brings to her interactions with those in positions of authority. The more she pokes her finger in Big Brother's all-seeing eye, the more she turns into an improbable rallying point for the downtrodden. Most of what gives her that special something is on display before she takes to the field of battle to fight others to the death. And that means the stories in The Hunger Games wind up at their least interesting during the actual Hunger Games.
Catching Fire, the series' second installment, finds Katniss still suffering from flashbacks and survivor's guilt, having faked a romance with fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) to get them both out of the last Hunger Games alive. But President Snow isn't fooled; he knows this was an act of rebellion against the government's carefully orchestrated sacrificial circus, and he's not about to let the people look to Katniss as a sign that the government is vulnerable.
So when Katniss and Peeta's "victory tour" of the districts doesn't result in the desired suppression of rebellious sentiment, the answer is to turn the 75th Hunger Games into a kind of Survivor All-Stars, forcing previous winners, including Katniss and Peeta, to compete to the death again.
The story kicks off by reminding us that there's a complication to the faked Katniss/Peeta romance, in the form of hunky Gale (Liam Hemsworth). He loves Katniss, she seems kind of into him, and the Katniss/Peeta/Gale triangle is clearly supposed to carry a heaping chunk of the narrative's emotional weight.
While Gale gets considerably more face time in this chapter than he did in last year's The Hunger Games, it's still hard to build the same connection between him and Katniss, given the ample time she spends with Peeta. And while Hemsworth and Hutcherson are both pleasant enough lads to look at, neither one has the charisma to hold the screen with Lawrence.
Her charisma, in fact, gives the opening two-thirds of Catching Fire most of its energy, as Katniss squares off with everyone trying to tell her what to do, from antagonists like President Snow to her mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). The structure of Catching Fire is nearly identical to that of The Hunger Games — with set pieces involving battle training, the public broadcast hosted by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the chariot parade, even a metaphorical flipoff to the game designer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — but Lawrence brings a ferocity to Katniss that makes the scenes feel fresh.
Then it's Games time, and suddenly Katniss is a considerably more passive participant. On some level, the battlefield material is significantly better than in The Hunger Games, thanks to a less irritating visual sensibility from director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, replacing Gary Ross), and a slew of solid new allies for Katniss and Peeta played by Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer.
Yet there are also a few borderline ridiculous set pieces that find our heroes fleeing toxic fog, and fighting a troop of angry baboons. (I wish to heaven I was kidding.) Once again there's so much ground to cover that one of the book series' most distinctive ideas — that the general public gets involved in helping players, and that being likable becomes a survival tactic — is all but eliminated, leaving nothing but a final hour of running and punching and PG-13-friendly stabbing.
As a middle trilogy chapter, Catching Fire faces the challenge of ending with a major cliffhanger, building to the resolution to come in the two-film adaptation of Mockingjay. The biggest problem, however, may not be that Catching Fire leaves you hungry for the next movie. It's that it leaves you hungry for what you're not getting enough of in this one: the girl on fire, who doesn't get to be fiery enough.