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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Currently Jason Statham is the reigning king of the run-around-and-shoot-things-until-something-explodes genre. He doesn't have a great deal of range but he doesn't need to—pile a few insane action set pieces around him and let his clenched teeth beady eyes and grunting do the rest. At its worst he can deliver purposefully over-the-top ADD-ridden circuses like Crank. At his best stylistic surface-level heist flicks like The Bank Job.
Statham's latest movie Killer Elite manages to squander his potential in favor of being boldly drab choosing political intrigue and hammy espionage devoid of intensity over anything remotely fun. The picture introduces us to Statham's Danny a mercenary in cahoots with a ragtag team of killers: Hunter (Robert De Niro) Meier (Aden Young) and Davies (Dominic Purcell). After a fumbled mission in which Danny takes down a nameless suit in front of his horrified son the bald gunman leaves his less-than-legal lifestyle behind and heads back to his honey Anne (Chuck's Yvonne Strahovski) in Australia.
A decent setup with above-average action segues quickly into Killer Elite's floundering plot: Danny receives word a year later (or a few months? A perfect timeline/logic isn't the movie's priority) that Hunter has been kidnapped by the Sheikh of Oman and in order to get him back he'll have to slip back into his old assassin ways to knock off three members of an elite British military force (the SAS) who reportedly killed the Sheikh's son. After a lengthy heart-to-heart with the imprisoned Hunter Danny accepts the mission and reteams with Meier and Davies to eliminate the ex-SAS operatives.
Not often do you beg a film to dumb itself down and get to the fistfighting but Killer Elite's so caught up in the "real life" of the SAS the veteran masterminds known as "The Feather Men" (a table full of grandpas who puppeteer the military squad with "back in my day" anecdotes) and their involvement with Oman politics that it never allows itself to unfold as a slick thriller. Clive Owen does his best to shake the film to life as the only youthful member of the The Feather Men: a one-eyed obsessive badass sworn to protect the targeted SAS members. Thankfully he makes for an excellent antagonist to Statham's loyal killer. In the very few moments they share together Killer Elite wakes up—you've seen a moment of it in the trailer where Statham fights Owen while tied to a chair—but even then the fact that they're having the skirmish doesn't click with the rest of the film.
The performances are Killer Elite's saving grace. While De Niro gives a masterclass in phoning it in (there's literally a scene in which he runs off with a briefcase of money) everyone else appears to be trying their best to make the dense material something worth watching. Dominic Purcell is the stand-out his mutton chopped womanizing renegade giving a handful of scenes a necessary comic edge. Director Gary McKendry nails the scenes where Statham's team plans and prepares with witty banter but when it comes to action and interweaving the story's many perspectives the film becomes a muddled mess.
Killer Elite is the definition of average—which feels especially unsatisfying when you realize the talent involved. De Niro and Owen are Oscar-nomianted actors. Statham's been set on fire while headbutting an AK-47-toting gangster. The real mystery of this film is why this didn't amount to something watchable.