"Would you like to be in a real war?" whispers President Snow (Donald Sutherland), as if he's offering a poisoned sweet to a child. "No," replies Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), and Snow says, "Neither would I." In a rebellion of the serfs, Katniss the archer princess could lose her life and Snow could lose his post as the tyrant of that future American dystopia--in fantasy fiction, is there any other -topia?--known as Panem. Yet the war drums start to throb in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, director Francis Lawrence's erratically entertaining film of the second book in Suzanne Collins' young-adult trilogy. Portent outweighs action in an episode that builds tension and marks time until Mockingjay, the series' two-part conclusion, when all Panemdemonium promises to break loose.
Last year's Hunger Games, a box-office champ that earned nearly $700 million worldwide, introduced an annual killer Olympics, in which two tribunes representing each part of Panem--from posh, one-percenter District 1 to Katniss's Appalachian disaster zone, District 12--hunt one another for televised sport. Katniss managed to save herself and her fellow twelver Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), vexing Snow to no end. This year, he proclaims the third Quarter Quell, a sort of Survivor: All-Stars pitting former victors from each district against one another. Under the connivance of Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss will vie with Peeta against expert foes, including the preening hunk Finnick (Sam Claflin) and the punkster Johanna (Jena Malone). May the best victor live.
Like Super Bowl Sunday, when more TV time is wasted on pregame folderol than is spent on actual football, Catching Fire moseys through half of its 2-hr. 26-min. running time setting up Katniss's rivalries and dropping hints. Once in the faux jungle, the movie sparks to life with toxic fog and attacks by evil monkeys. And even in the slow bits, there's the eerie pleasure of observing Lawrence. Since the first film, the 23-year-old actress has won an Oscar (for Silver Linings Playbook) and cemented her rep as the U.S.'s most watchable young star. Her sullen face sponges up the emotions of other characters--and of the viewer. Spinning in a wedding dress or in wary repose, Lawrence catches fire onscreen. She'll make a superb Pasionaria when Panem has a real war.
The hand signal for the story's rebels is three fingers raised silently. Catching Fire deserves neither a one-finger salute nor a thumbs-up. We'll give it two fingers and hope the third time's the charm.