Building on the robust foundations of last year’s opening salvo, Catching Fire is a lean and muscular sequel, striking a pleasing balance between brawn and brains.
The final hour of Francis Lawrence’s film might be devoted to the 75th annual Hunger Games, a televised battle royale pitting combatants against one another in a booby-trapped arena.
Yet the director and scriptwriters Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy aren’t in a hurry to bludgeon us with bloodshed and savagery.
They invest precious time in developing sinewy emotional bonds between characters and light the fuse on civil unrest that will explode in the concluding chapter, Mockingjay, which has been split into two films.
This film is unrelentingly grim and brutal, including a wince-inducing scene of flagellation at the hands of a sadistic commander (Patrick St Esprit) and a moment of heartbreaking self-sacrifice.
It opens with resilient heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) back in District 12, hunting alongside her beau, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).
They steal a kiss in secret before Katniss returns to the Victors’ Village to continue her fake romance with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) for the cameras. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is waiting for her.
Flanked by booze-sodden mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and sartorially daring escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss and Peeta tour the districts, scenting rebellion in the air.
Meanwhile, Snow recruits a new Games creator, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to stage a special anniversary tournamen which will pit the darlings of District 12 against former winners in the ultimate duel of death.
In the arena, Katniss and Peeta risk everything once again to keep each other alive, forging alliances with Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and his elderly mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen), quixotic duo Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and rabble-rousing loose cannon, Johanna Mason (Jena Malone).
The film whets the appetite nicely for a devastating final stand.
The script turns up the heat on the central love triangle to a brisk simmer, while Lawrence and Hutcherson expertly navigate their characters’ conflicting emotions.
With an extra 50 million dollars in the sequel’s budget, production design doesn’t disappoint, not least costume designer Trish Summerville, who pulls out the stops for Effie’s wacky wardrobe, including a dress festooned with monarch butterflies.
Most of the violence in the arena takes place off screen but as the cliff-hanger ending of the sequel makes clear, before every storm, there is a lull.
Take a deep breath, while you still can.