In theaters Friday, November 22
3 stars (out of 4)
Fret not, Hunger Games fans. (Hunger-hards? Kat-fancies?) To paraphrase the famous mantra, the odds are ever your favor that you’ll be satisfied. This faithful adaptation, after all, is leaner and meaner than the original. It’s just not as novel.
The action wisely starts on the tormented face of our strong-willed heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s fresh off outwitting, outplaying and outlasting her competitors at the Games. Oh yes, concocting a romance with the soft-spoken baker’s son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) was a stroke of genius. But her defiant victory has sparked a rebellion throughout the 12 districts of Panem. Even President Snow’s starstruck granddaughter now wears her hair in a sensible side-swept braid. His solution: In honor of the Games’ 75th anniversary, cull from past winners for an all-star edition. Surely the districts will get back in line after the girl on fire goes down in flames.
When the highly anticipated first movie was released last year, many griped that it omitted key plot elements from Suzanne Collins’ original source material. (Short list: Katniss getting the Mockingjay pin from Madge; the mysterious Avox; Katniss’ memories of her dad; poor Peeta nearly losing his leg. . .). But this time around, every major beat from the book is hit with precision — from Katniss delivering an ode to Rue to the folks in District 11 to her sly dance with the new game-maker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) at the Capitol. Even Katniss’ brooding hometown love, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), keeps busy. The result: Nearly 90 minutes of scintillating build-up.
And when Katniss finally does get shot up into the sunlight-filled arena, it’s impossible to not get a spine-tingling charge. Now a veteran on the course, she’s unfazed by the barrage of lethal challenges, not to mention the notion of committing blood-curling murder. (The most macabre violence is kept off-camera). Audiences will feel the same way: While there’s still a twisted thrill out of seeing her and the tributes battle monkeys and dodge a roving poisonous gas, it rings familiar.
That’s why a strong emotional component is so crucial. Rooting for Katniss and Peeta is easy. But the colorful, savvy crop of returning players adds a compelling dynamic to the proceedings. The steely, wildly outspoken Johanna (Jena Malone) intrigues the most. The wily, elderly Mags (Lynn Cohen; i.e., Magda from Sex & the City) plays the game with warmth. And the charming Finnick (Sam Claflin) may or may not be a devil with a smile. True, Claflin is not quite as rugged as he’s portrayed in the book — with his spiky golden hair and black-coral necklace, he looks like he just walked out of a stage production of Mamma Mia! Yet he still holds his own against the captivating Lawrence. Katniss’ support team, including Lenny Kravitz’ smooth stylist Cinna and Elizabeth Banks’ awesomely outfitted escort Effie, round out the solid cast.
Don’t expect a fulfilling ending here, or much of an ending at all in this in-betweener installment. But be sure that the next time Katniss lets her arrows fly, we’ll all be watching in awe.