Very often, middle movies in a series can feel like pure filler (or in the case of "The Hobbit," where it's all filler).
But "Catching Fire" builds nicely on the world and the premise established in the first "Hunger Games" movie, and it sets up an exciting finale.
Jennifer Lawrence is once again fantastic as Katniss Everdeen. She and Peeta Mellark, played by Josh Hutcherson, are being forced to feign a romance that saved their lives in the last movie - all as the government becomes increasingly brutal.
When it's announced the next war games will feature past winners, Katniss and Peeta are once again in the thick of it.
The returning characters are fleshed out nicely and the are some good new characters, my favorite being a game maker played by the great Philip Seymour Hoffman.
As enjoyable as "Catching Fire" is, it's not as exciting to compelling as the first movie. The horror of children butchering each other isn't matched by any of the violence in this second movie, since most everyone involved are grown-ups. Although, I love how both movies take the brutality so seriously.
I also preferred how director Gary Ross shot the first movie with hand-held cameras, giving it a more gritty and immersive feel. Ross is replaced in "Catching Fire" by Francis Lawrence, and the movie almost looks too slick and pretty for my taste.
Still, I'm a fan of both of these movies. The politics of class warfare and satire of reality entertainment are so well-conceived. But in the end, Lawrence is the treasure. She's transfixing - the real fire of this series.
EPPLER'S RATING: * * * 1/2
Out of five stars