What is a serious thespian like Jeffrey Wright (along with Amanda Plummer, and Toby Jones) doing in a pop-culture spectacle like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the futuristic gladiatorial trilogy? The answer, for Jones, is nothing, though perhaps his split-second of screen time will have a payoff in part three. As for Wright and Plummer, they are two contestants in the Hunger Games, and shrewdly (on the part of the screenwriters) represent that brains, as well as brawn, can lead to victory (in a rare instance of comedy, they are nicknamed Nuts and Volts, for their instability and deadly knowledge of electricity). The real surprise here is Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the games’ designer, whose acting elevates the film a notch or two above senseless CGI actioner. The designer slyly outwits President Snow (Donald Sutherland, better than before) and helps keep Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) alive, but to what end?
The end of the movie apparently sets up part three but is jarringly abrupt, and is structured like a TV miniseries rather than a novelistic trilogy. Unlike The Hobbit, however, Hunger Games deftly avoids the same-old, same-old in plotting and characterization. And that’s even before the contestants are overrun by a troop of homicidal baboons. For the 75th Hunger Games, Snow has diabolically decided that this survival test to the death will be stocked with former victors. This ups the excitement level while dispatching any idols of the underground rebellion, most especially Katniss, whose upset victory the year before has made her an emblem of hope to the oppressed masses. As the heroine, Lawrence is radiantly sincere, remarkably eluding any hint of kitsch.
Katniss’ romantic dilemma of needing her co-star Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) for survival (in the games and in the media machine of the Capital), while pining for another (Liam Hemsworth), barely generates the spark of a matchstick. There are several new characters picking up the slack, however, such as Jena Malone as a sexy ax murderer, and of course, there are those flaming costumes.