From left, Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, Elizabeth Banks as...

From left, Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket and Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in a scene from "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." Credit: Lionsgate

Second-act problems plague "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," but that's what happens when the entire movie is a second act.

By definition, this sequel can't feel as fresh as the first movie, "The Hunger Games," and it's prevented from delivering whatever rock 'em, sock 'em moments are being saved for next year's finale. It spins its wheels while giving us the illusion of movement. It succeeds, just barely, and mostly thanks to another tough performance from Jennifer Lawrence, returning as the reluctant warrior-hero Katniss Everdeen.

The rules of this movie's fanciful world -- a tyrannical regime whose annual Hunger Games force children to kill each other -- have already been established, which means "Catching Fire" can immediately start adding wrinkles. Still, new director Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend") takes his time doing so. The first hour sets up a convoluted plot, in which Katniss' popular support begins to concern the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland). As a result, Katniss and co-survivor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, vague but improving) are drafted into another competition, the Quarter Quell. Their competitors will be past champions like the cocky Finnick Odair (a charming Sam Claflin), brainy Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and oversexed Johanna Mason (Jena Malone). All these colorful characters, including new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (a slippery Philip Seymour Hoffman), help hold our interest during the slow moments.

Sucking up way too much screen time is Katniss' inability to choose between two suitors, Peeta and her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Here, as in "Twilight," this romantic waffling may be precisely what attracted many fans, but it trivializes our heroine. As Katniss strings the guys along (a kiss here, a snuggle there, a teary plea to understand her confused heart), she seems less like a strong-minded woman than a coquette wallowing in male attention. All this passive manipulation may have suited Bella Swan, but not a steely survivor like Katniss.

Once the new Games begin, "Catching Fire" gets the adrenaline pumping and puts Lawrence back on solid footing as the athletic archer with the deadly aim. If the cliffhanger ending seems sudden, it's only because the movie was just starting to get good.

PLOT In a dystopian future, the victors of a deadly competition become symbols of a populist uprising.

CAST Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin


BOTTOM LINE Sluggish pacing plagues this mid-series installment, but Lawrence's tough performance once again carries the day.

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