Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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In the last seven years Denzel Washington has paired with director Tony Scott on four hyperkinetic ultra-saturated feature films: Man on Fire Deja Vu The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable. When he strays from the time-honored action collaboration you'd think the man would take a break from the format. Not so—as Washington's new film Safe House clearly demonstrates.
Daniel Espinosa director of the acclaimed Swedish crime drama Snabba Cash shoots his espionage thriller with Scott-ian flair complete with rapid camera movement a palette of eye-scorchingly bright colors and fragmented editing. If Safe House was emotionally compelling the stylistic approach might make the narrative sizzle—but the script is as simple and familiar as they come: Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA agent with a monotonous gig. He's a safe housekeeper tasked with maintaining a stronghold in South Africa in case the feds need to stop by for some…interrogating. After a year of begging for field work and keeping the joint tidy Weston finds himself embroiled in the investigation of Tobin Bell (Denzel Washington) an ex-CIA notorious for selling information on the black market. A group of agents bring Bell in to Weston's safe house for a routine waterboarding but everything is thrown into chaos when the lockdown is infiltrated by machine-wielding baddies looking to put a bullet in Bell's head. To keep the captor alive Weston goes on the run with Bell in hand…never knowing exactly why everyone wants the guy dead.
The setup for Safe House provides Washington and Reynolds two fully capable action stars to do their thing and to do it well. The two characters have their own defining characteristics that each actor bites off with ferocity: Reynolds' Weston is a man drowning in circumstance built to kick ass but still out of his league and just hoping to get back to his gal in one piece. Bell has years of experience boring into the heads of his opponents and Washington plays him with the necessary charisma and confidence that make even his most despicable characters a treat to watch.
But the duo fight a losing battle in Safe House contending with the script's meandering action and ambiguous stakes that turn the Bourne-esque thriller into a grueling experience. Much of the movie is an extended chase scene where the object of the bad guys' desire is never identified. It's a mystery!—but the lack of info comes off as confusing. Safe House cuts back and forth between the compelling relationship between Weston and Bell and a war room full of exceptional actors (Vera Farmiga Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepherd) given nothing to do but spurt straightforward backstory and typical "there's no time Mr. ______!" exclamatory statements. Caking it is Espinosa's direction which lacks any sense of coherent geography. The action is never intense because you have no idea who is going where and when and why.
Safe House is a competently made movie with enough talent to keep it afloat but without any definable hook or dramatic emphasis it plays out like an undercooked version of the Denzel Washington/Tony Scott formula. Which is unfortunate as four solid ones already exist.
Once respected NYPD detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is now pretty much on his last legs literally and figuratively. He drinks is relegated to a desk job and walks with a limp. One morning after a long shift he’s corralled into transporting a petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the courthouse 16 blocks away so he can testify by 10:00 a.m. What Jack doesn’t know is that Eddie is one of the key witnesses in a case against crooked cops--that is until the two start getting shot at. Then it becomes crystal clear. The main bad guy Jack’s former partner Frank (David Morse) basically lets Jack know Eddie will never testify to just go ahead and hand him over but Frank underestimates Jack’s desire to finally do something good. So Jack and Eddie fight their way to the courthouse block by gut-wrenching block. Oh no there’s nothing formulaic about 16 Blocks not at all. In a film as predictable as this the only thing that’ll make it stand out is the performances. 16 Blocks nearly succeeds--but not quite. It would seem Willis is playing a character he’s played a hundred times before--the misunderstood and slightly unorthodox cop with a heart of gold. But as Jack the actor does a nice job trying out some new things namely playing fat bald and grizzled. You can almost smell how bad Jack’s breath has to be. Rapper/actor Mos Def who usually brightens any film he’s in also tries his hand at something different but his choices aren’t as smart. As the talkative and affable Eddie Mos comes up with one of the more annoying nasally accents ever recorded. After about five minutes of screen time you desperately want him to stop and say “Just kidding! I don’t really talk like this.” But he doesn’t. It’s too bad something like an accent can ruin an otherwise decent performance. Old-school director Richard Donner best known for his Lethal Weapons is a consummate professional when it comes to making these kind of movies. In other words he pretty much paints by numbers. We watch Jack and Eddie get out of one tight situation after another as the gaggle of bad cops try to gun them down. I mean 16 blocks doesn’t seem that far to go so they better throw in as many highly implausible obstacles as they can. Chinese laundries alleyways rooftops subways. And yes even a city bus which the pair--who have by now bonded big time--has to hijack. Donner also employs a popular but nonetheless annoying technique of zooming in when the action heats up so you can’t really see what’s going on. Even if you’re addicted to action movies--a Bruce Willis action movie no less--16 Blocks just doesn’t deliver the goods.