If there's a scale for film trilogy cliffhangers, the apex must be Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and the nadir Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire rests somewhere in the middle. After nearly two and a half hours of psychological torture and extreme melodrama, some resolution as to what just happened would be welcome.

It ain't to be. A quick rack of the brain and I come to this conclusion: I cannot remember a major, big budget action film that is at once so emotionally draining, deeply dramatic and incredibly bleak. Thought the death of Rue was difficult in The Hunger Games? Just wait to see what happens when Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) travel to Rue's home, District 11, on their victory tour.

The revolutionary flags are flying in this second chapter of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Picking up roughly a year after the conclusion of the first movie, we first see Katniss, looking like Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans, surveying the horizon. She's startled by Gale (Liam Hemsworth), one-third of the weakish love triangle established in The Hunger Games.

From there, we see Katniss arriving at her new home, the location she's earned as a result of winning the Hunger Games. The entrance to the grounds looks like a cemetery, which can't be coincidence.

It's at home that she's met by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who informs Katniss that if she wants to live, she'd better prove to him that she and Peeta and their romance is the real deal. He's had her tailed and knows her heart lies with Gale.

It only gets worse. Peeta and Katniss don't like each other much, but play up the romance on their victory tour to stay alive. Worse yet, there's a new games master, Plutarch Heavensbee (a bored-seeming Philip Seymour Hoffman; maybe he can't believe his character's name), who informs Katniss that the next Hunger Games will be cuh-razy.

See, the 75th Hunger Games are approaching, and each 25 years there's a wrinkle: It's a Quarter Quell, and all the contestants are former winners. And because Katniss is the only female winner from District 12, she's automatically entered. Peeta and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) are the male winners, and Haymitch's name is drawn. Peeta, good guy that he is, volunteers in Haymitch's place.

So now Peeta and Katniss are back fighting for their lives. It's every bit as terrifying for them as it sounds. All the other winners have known each other for years, and Katniss and Peeta are climbing uphill from the start, having no inroads with the other contestants.

The remaining minutes of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire—and there are plenty of remaining minutes—have to do with Katniss and Peeta staying alive while making uneasy alliances. There's Johanna Mason (a terrific Jena Malone) and Finnick (Sam Claflin), for starters, and they may have plans of their own. There's also Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer), welcome additions to an above average cast.

It's too bad that Lawrence doesn't have much to do other than react. But when your family is threatened by Snow—Sutherland revels in his icy menace—and the man you love and the man you're supposed to love are closer to death's door each time you pass within earshot, maybe you'd look pained, too.

It's something of a pity that Katniss, per the machinations of the plot, is mostly a pawn in this movie, and that the ending isn't much of an ending. But The Hunger Games: Catching Fire looks great, it's a joy to see Wright and Plummer in a major American movie, and—no joke—this flick is a nail biter, even in the quiet moments. Can't wait for Mockingjay.


Directed by Francis Lawrence
With Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Woody Harrelson
Regal Santa Fe Stadium 14
146 min.