Belying the "hunger" in the title, the second instalment of The Hunger Games trilogy is an overflowing cornucopia of cinematic stuff: Romance, action, social commentary, nature gone mad, mystery, intrigue and even fashion.
And yet, as in the first instalment, there is the gnawing feeling of something lacking.
In the first film, remember, plucky teen tribute Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) managed to emerge victorious from the annual state-sponsored teen gladiator spectacle, where representatives from every "district" in the dystopian plutocracy of Panem are obliged to fight to the death. Not only that, she managed to ensure the survival of her fellow District 12 scrapper Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) by pretending a romantic affection.
Now returned home to luxury digs in her otherwise squalid home burg of District 12, Katniss is suffering both post-traumatic stress and a troublesome love life. Her real lover, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), resents her staged affection for Peeta and the lovelorn Peeta is likewise rankling.
Worse news for Katniss: Panem's ruthless President Snow (Donald Sutherland) thinks she is becoming a symbol of rebellion for the starving masses of Panem and is eager to plot her demise in a conspiracy cooked up with the sinister new gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Their solution is to draft Katniss and a selection of past winners into the deluxe 75th edition of the games (not unlike Survivor: All-Stars) where they can contrive simultaneously to kill her and sully her good name to the population at large.
Snow does not bother looking for fault in his own camp. Panem is apparently modelled after ancient Rome, where emperors distracted the rabble with "bread and circuses." Snow forgot the "bread" part of the equation.
Anyway, the stage is set for a deluxe edition of the games, where Katniss finds herself in some unlikely alliances with competitors, including the vain, hunky Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin), the axe-wielding future riot-grrl Johanna (Jena Malone deserves her own movie) and a pair of crafty tech-nerds, Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and the somewhat unhinged Wiress (Amanda Plummer).
Director Francis Lawrence takes over the directing chores from the first film's Gary Ross, a move that mostly translates to an absence of shaky cams and a more stately approach to the franchise's large-scale spectacle.
But director Lawrence, who gave us the cartoony post-apocalyptic thriller I Am Legend, is largely obliged to whistle us through the film's busy traffic jam of romantic and political intrigues. By the time we get to the games themselves, Lawrence doesn't have the first film's us-vs.-them dynamic, as bad guys turn out to be good guys -- maybe -- and the really bad guys don't have that much screen time.
The film's conclusion is doubtless intended as a bit of a mind-blower, but it feels more like a tossed-off wrap-up that fails to give proper dramatic weight to the events described.
Fortunately for the film, the other Lawrence -- Jennifer -- continues to make the franchise worthy of interest. The young actress brings such steely gravitas to Katniss, the viewer stays hooked into the story, no matter how preposterous it gets.
Forget Katniss's flame-spouting wedding dress. It is Lawrence's commitment to the role that is truly breathtaking.