Picking up where the previous film left off (with no reminders of the previous film’s events, mind you), Hunger Games winners Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are forced to play up a romance and tour the various districts. However, the President (Donald Sutherland) and the new games master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are sensing that Katniss is inspiring a rebellion amongst the people, and the President is keen to keep his power. It is decided that at the next Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta will face only former Hunger Games champions (Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer among them), hoping that Katniss’ chances of survival are miniscule. That’s the plan, at least. Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Liam Hemsworth, and a hopefully well-paid Toby Jones reprise their roles from the previous outing.
This 2013 sequel to the hit YA fiction adaptation is at the very least a vast improvement on its tedious and stupid predecessor. However, that film was so bad that this film from director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”, “I Am Legend”) still isn’t nearly good enough to recommend. But an improvement it indeed is, slight or not. Scripted by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”, “Slumdog Millionaire”, “127 Hours”) and Michael deBruyn (A pseudonym for Michael Arndt, Oscar-winner for “Little Miss Sunshine”), the film’s prolonging of the actual Hunger Games has its advantages and disadvantages. Since the Games sequences in the first film were so appallingly handled, I was quite glad that the film spent most of its length away from that stuff. The downside is that for what is basically a variation on “The Most Dangerous Game”, it’s handled somewhat wrong-headedly. More than an hour is far too long for there to be absolutely no action in the film, and what it did present for those 60 minutes or so is one same note played over and over. I liked the idea that the former participants Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson are now considered mentors, kind of like returning players on a reality TV show, except much less happy to be there. However, the film gives us 40 odd minutes of Katniss struggling with all of this, without the film really getting into the proper story for an exceedingly long time. “Battle Royale” showed how to do this kind of thing right (Hell, so did “The Running Man”). I also have to say that the film’s big twist calls attention to itself from a certain actor’s first scene, and the final ten minutes are abysmally clunky. How did no one notice that?
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the characters are much more interesting this time out, and with one major exception, they are more likeable, too. Woody Harrelson, as always is a highlight. He seems to be having more fun than anyone else in this decidedly too self-serious franchise. Donald Sutherland gets a bit more meat to chew on this time out, and is all the better for it. I’m not going to speculate on what was going on in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mind when he signed on for this film, but he certainly looks skull-fuckingly bored to be there. And yet, there’s no doubt that his character is much more interesting than his predecessor, played in the first film by Wes Bentley. I’d much rather have seen a film revolving around Hoffman, Sutherland, and Harrelson to be honest. Elizabeth Banks seems to have toned down the affectedness of her character this time out, and the character itself is also less ambiguous, which is actually a good thing. Effie is likeable and slightly less annoying this time. Liam Hemsworth gets a bit more screen time in this one, which is nice, he’s certainly more interesting and charismatic than Mr. Hutcherson.
The new participants in the games are a pretty interesting lot too, certainly more so than the previous film. For instance, they actually have personalities. If it weren’t for Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone would easily walk off with this film. It’s a lively, memorable performance from an actress one doesn’t see nearly often enough these days. In fact, her character should be the lead in this series if you ask me. Yes, she’s horribly unlikeable, but she’s also hilarious, entertaining, and brings an energy that others in the film lack. Director Lawrence, meanwhile has thrown Amanda Plummer a bone here, as she and Jeffrey Wright play the most mannered and affected couple of the year…and oddly enough, it works, mostly because they’re playing the most likeable characters in the entire film. Plummer in particular is perfectly cast, and possibly not acting. Weird woman. Let’s face it, mannered and affected acting is her and Wright’s thing.
Unfortunately, this is still the story of Katniss, and it’s still Jennifer Lawrence’s film. Lawrence did fine work in “Silver Linings Playbook”, but I’ve hated her in just about everything else, especially these films. She’s in typically sullen and unlikeable mode here. I know Katniss is being forced to do things against her will, but Lawrence really ought to have found a different way to convey that, because it comes off as sullen, and frankly a bit bitchy. She, and therefore the character, come across as impossible to like, and for a supposedly heroic protagonist, that’s fatal. Katniss is just an unpleasant person to hang a movie around, let alone a franchise. Lawrence doesn’t give the worst performance in the film (that would be Patrick St. Esprit as Cmdr. Thread, who is embarrassingly over-the-top), but certainly one of the chief flaws here. Stanley Tucci once again stands out for the wrong reasons, his character is utterly ridiculous, and he plays it as though he’s on a Nickelodeon teen comedy show. He should be ashamed of himself, we all know what he’s capable of.
As for the action, well the cinematography by Jo Willems is noticeably steadier and better this time out, and when the action comes it’s more enjoyable than last time. But like I said, with plusses come minuses, and the action is just too late in the coming to really matter. Still, this is enough of an improvement over the first film to take things out of bad movie territory and into average movie territory. That’s something of a distinction, right?