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The first "Hunger Games" movie was a little rough around the edges and a little oddly formed. At times it didn't feel quite committed to its shocking premise, and its young heroine was a little too opaque. Still, it did distinguish itself from all the other young adult genre franchises thanks to a good lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence and some genuinely resonant subject matter. The sequel, I'm happy to report, manages to improve on it substantially.

The last time we saw Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutsherson) had been crowned the co-victors of the Hunger Games, the yearly gladiatorial deathmatches used by the leaders of their dystopia to oppress the downtrodden populace. Katniss learns the corrupt Capitol is far from done with her, especially since her victory has been seen as a gesture of defiance, spurring signs of an uprising. She and Peeta are sent on a victory tour, and ordered by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to continue the ruse that they're young lovers, though Katniss is actually smitten with her childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Meanwhile, Snow and a new Gamemaker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) prepare for the next Hunger Games, which they plan to use to eliminate Katniss permanently.

Last time, it was everything going on outside the actual Hunger Games, the reality show spectacle, the distorted celebrity culture, and the not-so-subtle mass media critique, that delivered the most entertainment, while the Games themselves were fairly mediocre. This time the film is more competent as an action movie, but the good stuff is still mostly the maneuverings that are going on outside and around the Games. We get much more focus on the political climate and the social unrest this time, as Katniss struggles with a life in the spotlight she can't escape. Jennifer Lawrence continues to deliver a strong performance, as Katniss's survival-oriented worldview begins to shift towards rebelliousness. She really sells the paranoia and the moments of blind panic early on, which make Katniss's later bravery all the more affecting. Her would-be screen beaus can't keep up with her, though Hutcherson improves quite a bit.

The budget was noticeably increased for this film, thanks to the series' newly minted blockbuster status. The talent level of the incoming actors reflects this too. In addition to Hoffman, new characters include other former victors Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Jena Malone), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and Mags (Lynn Cohen), who may be new potential allies or enemies for Katniss. Donald Sutherland gets much more screen time and much more to do, cementing him as the real Big Bad of "The Hunger Games." He's a lot of fun bringing on the malevolence here, as are returning cast members Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson in supporting parts. More importantly we've got an action movie director onboard for this round, Francis Lawrence, best known for "I am Legend." No more shakey-cam, and though the action remains firmly in PG-13 territory, not so much squeamishness about the violence either.

All in all this is a much more comfortable, self-assured outing. In many ways the plot retreads significant portions of the first movie, but now the commentary is more pointed, the action more impactful, and the narrative much more focused. Stakes are raised across the board. The sinister tyrant who watched the first Games from afar is now right across the table from Katniss, and threatening her directly to her face. Where media manipulation was a clever strategy in the first movie, now it's a matter of life and death with both sides constantly debating ways to use Katniss's image to their own advantage. Concepts are better fleshed out, characters have more depth and definition, and it's much easier to get swept up into this universe.

I do miss some of the roughness of the first "Hunger Games," with its bluegrass infused score and gloomier, more atmospheric depictions of Katniss's impoverished home town. "Catching Fire" is much more polished, and its wilder conceits are easier to swallow because of better execution, but as a result it comes across as a little more generic. However, "Catching Fire" is much more accessible and delivers on all fronts a lot more consistently. It also does a great deal of heavy lifting to widen the scope of "The Hunger Games" to accommodate a four-film franchise. I'm much more interested in the seeing the rest of the films now than I was after the first one.

In fact, when you put it up against all the other big budget action franchises out there right now, "The Hunger Games" is one of the best that Hollywood has to offer. It does have some real substance to it, features a compelling narrative with strong ideas, and is terribly entertaining too. Let's hope they keep it up.
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