In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Promising journalism student Matt Buckner (Wood) gets tossed out of Harvard for taking a drug rap for his highly privileged roommate the son of a governor. He knows he can't fight the charges so he heads to London to visit his sister (Claire Forlani) who's married and has a child. Their absentee father (Henry Goodman) is a foreign correspondent and Matt can't reach him to tell him of his expulsion. Meanwhile he meets Pete (Hunnam) the crass and unsophisticated brother of his new brother-in-law Steve (Marc Warren). Steve sends Matt off with his brother Pete with a bribe to show him one of England's best cultural event--a football match (that's soccer to us Yanks). That trip results in Matt's involvement in the Green Street Hooligans a gang or "firm " as they're called that supports the local team and pounds each other in violent street battles. Matt learns about camaraderie loyalty machismo and street fighting as well as realizing he can pack a wallop when called upon. He's getting a reputation for being tough but things get more complicated as Matt becomes the sole American in the Hooligans as well as the fact he's hiding that he's a journalist. The firms don't take kindly to the tabloid types.
We know Wood as Frodo Baggins the hobbit of the Lord of the Rings movies and Hunnam is known as the pretty boy from the British version of Queer as Folk and Nicholas Nickleby. But in Green Street Hooligans both of them dirty themselves up a bit. Hunnam is the standout showing his true acting chops with his close-shorn hair and spontaneous mean streak. He's smart and multi-dimensional alternately showing his rough side as a gang fighter and then his sensitive side as a schoolteacher and football coach. Wood isn't nearly as believable as a street thug but he's adept at playing the fish-out-of-water roles. Warren is noteworthy as the brother-in-law with a secret and Leo Gregory puts on quite a performance as a police lieutenant suspicious of Pete. The supporting cast looks like they were taken right off the streets of West Ham.
Director and co-writer Lexi Alexander does a nice job showing the British versions of gangs and their bloody street fights. Americans may be shocked by the senseless violence surrounding a sports franchise (or maybe not) but it's realistic. The British press however are vilifying this film because it's too cleaned up and doesn't accurately show the "yob" subculture. But if Hooligans is viewed for its brutal but effective fight scenes as well as a window into machismo then its not disappointing. It gets a bit corny at times and heads in a predictable direction but it remains captivating partially because of the handheld cinematography by Alexander Buono. The film shows how the sense of belonging and desire to bash heads can become addictive among the guys in the pubs who don't have much to lose.