Yes, it’s true. The second in the series is a better film than the first. It’s leaner, tougher and grittier—the elements the first lacked to its detriment. And yes, it helps if you have seen the first one. (In fact, don’t bother seeing it until you either see the original or read every plot point you can.)
First and foremost is the star, on which everything else hinges. Jennifer Lawrence, still fresh from her Oscar win for last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, is one of America’s best young actresses. She’s not a perfect fit for the role, neither physically nor temperamentally. But she has pulled the character of Katniss into herself, and brings well-tuned acting skills and a protected, stubborn determination to the role. She is also a facial chameleon, and ranges from almost plain to pretty to classically beautiful in the Liz Taylor/Cleopatra mold, depending on the often overdone make-up. She has a fierce personal authority that works beautifully for the film, and once again proves her talent and range. The film and the franchise can rest happily on those athletic shoulders.
Everyone else performs at a high level, at least nearly everyone. Josh Hutcherson seems to have relaxed into his role as Peeta, and if he doesn’t exactly own the screen when with Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth is a sold presence as Gale, the young love Katniss left behind and left undefined. Donald Sutherland is smooth without being oily, and Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson show a few more colors than they were able to in the first film. Seeing an actor of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s stature was a bit disconcerting until the end of the film [semi-spoiler alert], when we see that his character will grow in importance in the upcoming two films.
The inestimable Stanley Tucci demonstrates once again why he is so highly regarded in the acting community. His show host could easily have been over-the-top satire, with some justifiable furniture chewing and a slight wink to the audience letting us know what fun he is having with the role. But he never even ventures close to that. He stays in character, even when his different interviewees throw his character in a number of uncomfortable directions. It’s a high-wire act and he executes it almost flawlessly.
The only performance that doesn’t quite work is that of Jena Malone, who seems to be struggling as she moves from child to grown-up roles. As with her character in television’s Hatfields & McCoys’ miniseries, she seems to try too hard to be angry and her attempts at sexing things up in that series and this film remind one unpleasantly of another child star (in this case, a musical one) whose moves into an adult identity are bumpy and far too sexualized for comfort.
Moving away from director Gary Ross, director of the original, was a good idea. It’s understandable that one has to be careful with a Young Adult classic about killing children; too much reality on the screen would alienate the audience you expect to draw. But Ross’s film was too soft, with little edge. Francis Lawrence proved a better choice. His action scenes are sharper, and his camera and cutting are judicious in showing and not showing us the beatings and killings. Instead of softening a scene, he shows us just enough of it for us to get what’s going on without misbalancing the film with a visual orgy of violence.
Perhaps the biggest change coming from the move into a stronger, harder mode is the effect of the showmanship aspect of the games. In the first film, the hosts, the costumes, the exaggerated carnival-barker delivery, and the outlandish costumes and effects delivered to the audience came off as silly and extravagant, and the whole conceit of the games themselves seemed mocking but dystopian and belonging to a feared future. Now, perhaps due to the harder edge of the film or even the disposition of this author, the games, the hype, the glitter all fall somewhere between biting satire and frightening socio-political commentary. When one steps back from our society and sees how the Kardashians, Instagram, Pinterest, and practically all “reality” television can be a dumb dazzling distraction from the real issues of life, what’s going on in the film is less prophetic and “possible” than a simple allegory of the America of our own times.