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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Things haven't changed much since we last saw teen spy Cody Banks (Frankie Muniz): His parents (Cynthia Stevenson and Daniel Roebuck) are still in the dark about what their now 16-year-old son does for a living and drop him off for the summer at Kamp Woody which is really secret teen CIA training program. But it turns out the camp's director Diaz (Keith Allen) is a rogue CIA agent who has stolen a top-secret mind-control device that he plans on individually implanting into the teeth of the world's leaders in order to rule the planet. When he escapes to London to begin his evil undertaking Cody must pose as a student at an elite boarding school for musically gifted kids to get close to his target who is in cahoots with the headmistress' husband. As if that was not enough Cody also has to deal with his new "handler " the clumsy buffoon Derek (Anthony Anderson) who keeps botching up their plans all while keeping his identity a secret from the other students at school. Will he succeed in stopping the bad guys from taking over the world?
Poor Muniz. The Malcolm in the Middle star has fallen prey to studio execs who seem eager to jump on the teen spy bandwagon by riding on the coattails of Spy Kids' appeal and the modest success of its original film rather than churning out a decent PG flick. While Muniz is still charming as Cody an adolescent wise beyond his years his character comes across as a stick in the mud when paired with a slapstick character such as Anderson's Derek. In the first film Muniz got to act like a kid an inadequate teen smitten by his agency mentor Ronica played by Angie Harmon. Here none of the characters seem to have any common sense and Cody is forced to be the mature one. This switch sort of takes the fun and innocence out of it. And poor Anderson. The comedian is stuck in the role of the inept CIA reject whose disguises perpetuate every black stereotype imaginable including a cook "straight outta Compton" and robe-wearing African. Hannah Spearritt who plays Emily a Scotland Yard agent also posing as a student is the brightest addition to the cast but her role is almost marginal in this sequel.
Director Kevin Allen who brought us the 2000 hairdressing comedy The Big Tease delivers a teen actioner that mechanically plods through its formulaic script. The film has all the ingredients necessary for a delectable spy pic--cool gadgets exciting chases diabolical villains covert hideouts--but the end product is as bland as kidney pie. While the original Agent Cody Banks had a sophisticated sense of humor to it this sequel is clumsy and crass. Cody's awkwardness around the opposite sex in the original film for example was sweet. Here the team of writers--Don Rhymer Harald Zwart and Dylan Sellers--injects perverted overtones into the film that are just so wrong. Take "Kamp Woody " bandleader Mr. Jerksalot the invariable references to Cody's instrument and the boatload of phallic-looking weapons including a retainer that can act as a receiver with proper tongue manipulation or Diaz's giant charged flashlight. For viewers who somehow missed the writers' not-so-clever nuances there is plenty of unoriginal dialogue to roll your eyes at including the Brit gem "Don't get your knickers in a twist."