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Refreshing 'The Hunger Games' Offers Promising Franchise Start

Refreshing 'The Hunger Games' Offers Promising Franchise Start
3/26/2012 10:44 AM ET

Even with a rushed finale and some missed opportunities, "The Hunger Games" is still a smart, engaging action-thriller that sets the bar pretty high for prospective action franchises. Though the satire of Suzanne Collins' novel could have been explored in more detail, and hopefully will in the sequels, it's hard to complain when you get an event film that makes such an effort to flesh out the characters. By the time everything really gets going, our hero Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is so easy to root for that it doesn't matter if you've never read a single page of the novel.

Set in the near future, Katniss Everdeen's life is a bleak, impoverished existence that gives no reason to hope that anything could ever change. When a character tells Katniss early on that they should run away from their destitute town and find a new life, she seems almost confused at the very idea. For Katniss, a girl of 16, her adolescence has already been swallowed by poverty and family responsibilities, and one might as well talk about catching a flight to Jupiter.

With her father dead from a mining accident, Katniss not only has to keep her devastated mother on track but is the sole provider for her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields). Living in District 12, one of the poorest districts in the nation of Panem, Katniss manages to keep her family afloat by hunting squirrels with her trusty bow, which she's as deadly with as the legendary Robin Hood. Anyone who saw the fairly brilliant "Winter's Bone" can probably guess that Jennifer Lawrence is perfect as a no-nonsense survivor who is gritty and wise beyond her years.

But her troubles are only beginning due to the looming start of the Hunger Games, a ruthless tournament that pits kids from all the districts against each other in a vicious fight to the death, one where there is only one victor. As punishment for a past rebellion, two "tributes" are selected from each district (one male, one female) and the event broadcasts worldwide to massive television ratings. When her sister is randomly chosen to represent District 12 in the tournament, Katniss sees no choice but to volunteer in her stead. Considering the long odds, volunteers are fairly rare and everyone wisely assumes that she's sacrificing her life. Also thrown into the mix is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a young boy who is unfortunate enough to be the other representative of District 12.

Soon Katniss and Peeta are whipping off to the Capitol, a state-of-the-art city that seems to horde much of the wealth denied to the outer districts. Though Katniss is used to squalor and dressing like it's 1885, the Capitol is an unbelievable piece of human ingenuity, a crisp and clean utopia that showcases all of the grand technology and architectural advancements developed over the years. Much like our world of today, "The Hunger Games" universe is one where humans are capable of both extraordinary achievement and devastatingly casual cruelty.

Luckily for our heroes, sort of, they're blessed with a mentor named Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former Hunger Games winner who has the impossible task of pointing them in the right direction. Instead of the typical mentor gushing with wisdom, Harrelson's version is a boozy defeatist who would rather drink himself under than get his hopes up. But though he may not speak in helpful riddles like Yoda or Mr. Miyagi, Haymitch sticks to providing practical advice and encouraging his tributes without lying about their chances.

Though some film lovers will recognize a similar plot as popular Japanese flick "Battle Royale," "The Hunger Games" has a tone all to itself and it's easy to get sucked into the sadistic game our heroes find themselves playing. In the background of the action, the television coverage wages on and "The Hunger Games" isn't shy about suggesting that humans would be more than willing to watch a similar tournament to the death - if it were allowed. For as sick and twisted as it is, the ratings do not lie and the annual tournament is locked into the culture due to their being so much interest. A nice touch is having sponsors pay for useful tools and products for the most likeable of the contestants.

If there is a limitation in "The Hunger Games," though, it's the lack of development of characters outside of Katniss and Peeta, even if Donald Sutherland doesn't need too long to be effective as the slyly ominous President Snow. The intolerably smug Cato (Alexander Ludwig) is your usual cold-hearted villain out to kill our hero and the movie would have benefited from a stronger bad guy. There are also a few awkward PG-13 moments when brutal violence is laughably sanitized, but that's to be expected.

By focusing on taking small steps with our main character, "The Hunger Games" ends up slowly drawing us in and building suspense before the inevitable big action moments, allowing us to buy into Suzanne Collins' universe. Many big-budget action movies these days are skittish around quiet moments, almost as if the filmmakers are afraid they'll lose the audience if they don't make something go "boom" every few scenes. Backed by the steady and restrained direction of Gary Ross and the perfectly cast Jennifer Lawrence, "The Hunger Games" digs confidently into the story without leaning on CGI and action sequences like a crutch. When done this well, it makes all the difference in the world.

by RTT Staff Writer

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