Katniss Everdeen is cautioned several times: "Remember who the enemy is."
The makers of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" once again prove they are not the enemy of the lovers of the books. They have done right, so far, by the readers who fueled sales of 50 million copies of Suzanne Collins' trilogy and made the first movie a global sensation.
If you haven't read the novels or seen the 2012 film, the second makes virtually no effort to provide a recap. It returns moviegoers to the ruins of North America in what is now called Panem, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back in District 12 but haunted by her actions during the Hunger Games.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson.
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.
To save her little sister's life, she volunteered for the diabolical contest in which tweens and teens had to kill or be killed. She also had to exaggerate the depth of her affection for fellow tribute and neighbor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in order to survive and triumph.
Now, unrest is in the air at every turn for Katniss.
Her relationship with best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hasn't been the same since the games, and President Snow (a leonine Donald Sutherland) blames her for sowing seeds of defiance and threatens the lives of those she holds dear. When she and Peeta embark, with heavy hearts, on the customary Victors' Tour, it's obvious that rebellion is brewing and being met with violence.
Snow tells new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that Katniss has become a beacon of hope and, therefore, must be eliminated. Plutarch suggests they double the floggings and executions in the districts and paint Katniss as "one of us." He reasons, "They're gonna hate her so much they might just kill her for you."
Failing that, Snow has treacherously tweaked the rules of the Quarter Quell so that Katniss will be forced to return to the arena for an event held every 25 years. It will be a savage version of an all-star competition, in which the best of the best fight to the death but with stakes higher than anyone could imagine.
"Catching Fire," directed by Francis Lawrence ("Constantine," "I Am Legend," "Water for Elephants"), is bigger but less thrilling and darker than its predecessor, with hints of Nazi Germany in the cheering throngs, pageantry and red banners in the Capitol.
The makeup, meringue of hair and outfits of escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) are as outrageous as before, with one in a dove gray fabric reminiscent of a human-size ornamental kale. However, even she cannot delight in the tasks at hand once she sees herself, Katniss, Peeta and the pair's mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), as a team.
As stylist Cinna, Lenny Kravitz returns, as does Stanley Tucci as TV personality Caesar Flickerman. Newcomers to the film franchise include Sam Claflin as Finnick, Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, Amanda Plummer as Wiress, Jena Malone as Johanna and Lynn Cohen as Mags.
The story is about hope, sacrifice and rumbles of insurgency but is often overshadowed by sadness or anticipation for what's to come. As with "12 Years a Slave," a bare back is lashed until bloody but within the PG-13 boundaries.
The sequel ends with a figurative "To be continued" (and no bonus scene after the credits). The third book, "Mockingjay," is being made into a pair of movies for release in 2014 and 2015 so expect another finger on the pause button.
With an Oscar for "Silver Linings Playbook" to her credit, an archer's form and an ability to play fearful or fearless, Ms. Lawrence is the girl on fire more than ever, even if the franchise flames have dimmed a bit.