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'Hunger Games: Catching Fire' is bigger, better, broodier

The Districts are in revolt. People are being shot simply for raising their hands and whistling - not because they're trying to hail a cab (they're too poor), but as a symbol of solidarity and protest.

The Districts are in revolt. People are being shot simply for raising their hands and whistling - not because they're trying to hail a cab (they're too poor), but as a symbol of solidarity and protest.

And Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) - the girl from Appalachia with the fierce eyes, daunting archery skills and multi-demographic fan base - is making trouble.

"She's become a beacon of hope for the rebellion," a worried President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) confides to the new head gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Hunger Games: Catching Fire - the two of them watching (on the all-seeing monitors) as the winner of the 74th Hunger Games heads into the hinterlands surrounding the Capitol on her Victory Tour.

Let the games begin.

And let the funny names begin again, too.

A satisfying second installment in the promised quadrilogy based on Suzanne Collins' megaselling series about life in a dystopian land where a select group of boys and girls run into the woods and kill each other for the entertainment of the masses, Catching Fire is bigger, better and broodier than the first film. Life in Panem - a post-war nation consisting of a glimmering hub where an elite class of Haves stuff their faces merrily, surrounded by a ring of ghettos populated by teeming throngs of hangdog Have-Nots - is unsettled, threatening to implode.

Whether you look at The Hunger Games as an Occupiers' parable about inequity and class warfare, or a fantasy metaphor for teen defiance, or as just a kooky story of survival in a controlled environment where, sadly, most of the contestants must die, there's no getting around the fact that this franchise rocks.

Where else can an irrefutably formidable actress (Winter's Bone, an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook) go off and hunt rabbits with bow and arrow one minute, consider running away with her hunky beau (Liam Hemsworth) the next, and then bond with her stylist (Lenny Kravitz) at a Cecil B. DeMille-scale pageant - wrapped in a gown that is so hot it literally bursts into flames.

("Who are you wearing?" they should ask Katniss as she parades the red carpet in her Cleopatra makeup. "Cinna," she could reply, radiantly.)

With a convincing athleticism and an ability to shoot death rays of empathy, anguish and obstinance out of her eyes, Lawrence manages to transcend the sillier set pieces of Catching Fire, elevating the (ahem) game in the process.

Francis Lawrence (no relation), who directed Will Smith in that other dystopian survivalist tale, I Am Legend, proves to be a better match for this material than the first Hunger Games' director, Gary Ross. The over-the-top production design and costumes (Elizabeth Banks, as the daffy chaperone, Effie Trinket, in a revolving wardrobe of candy-colored getups and matching wigs!) don't look as tacky this time around, and even Stanley Tucci's spray-on tan and blinding dentition seem more credible somehow. And Woody Harrelson - as the booze-soaked veteran victor - appears legitimately disaffected, not just acting the part.

As for plot, it's full of betrayal and intrigue, hidden agendas and alliances. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Games, President Snow has ordered up the Quarter Quell, a death match that pits the winning "tributes" from previous games to compete against one another in a grand "reaping." This sounds pretty "coldblooded," (sorry, the quotation marks are getting the upperhand), but when some of the past victors include Amanda Plummer (crazy-eyed and blurting), Lynn Cohen (playing a mute, frail senior citizen) and Jeffrey Wright (a bookworm with annoying eyewear), you actually find yourself rooting for their demise.

The Quarter Quell takes place in a rainforest of sorts - a rain forest where it rains blood, where the fog is poisonous, and where killer monkeys are on the prowl.

May the odds be ever in your favor, Katniss.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Francis Lawrence. With Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Donald Sutherland. Distributed by Lionsgate.

Running time: 2 hours, 26 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, dystopian bleakness, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters