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By Claudia Puig
USA TODAY

It's almost as if the role ofKatniss Everdeen, the sad-eyed but steely heroine of the best-selling seriesThe Hunger Games, was written expressly for Jennifer Lawrence.

WithThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire(**1/2 out of four; rated PG-13, opening Thursday in select theaters and Friday nationwide), Lawrence has evolved believably in the role of the increasingly rebellious Katniss. The Oscar-winning actress can nimbly pull off the dazzling fashion-show moments in this futuristic drama, as well as the considerable action exploits and emotional shadings required of her tortured character. Whether on the runway or shooting an arrow, Lawrence is powerfully convincing.

Based on the books by Suzanne Collins, this second in the series follows Katniss after she has returned home from winning the fight-to-the-death competition, along with her partnerPeeta Mellark(Josh Hutcherson). (It's a grim game of sheer survival, pitting pairs from each of 12 oppressed districts.) Katniss and Peeta have been handsomely rewarded, their bleak, poverty-stricken lives replaced with physical comforts, courtesy of the totalitarian regime they live under. But there is discontent brewing.

Katniss and Peeta are ordered by the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to embark on a Victor's Tour to distract the increasingly agitated public from its oppression The sinister leader is convinced that proof of their abiding love will conquer all thoughts of revolt. As if.

When revolution seems imminent, the government institutes public floggings and executions to quell the populace. Still, insurrection simmers.

In turn, Katniss grows more radicalized, but she's compelled to keep her instincts under control - or harm will come to her family. She must find more insidious ways to fight the power.

Thanks to pointed changes in the rule book, Katniss is drafted into a special anniversary Hunger Games contest. Again she faces a cutthroat challenge with Peeta as her partner. This time, previous winners compete, so the all-star stakes are tougher. The structure of this sequel remains similar to the first film, as per Collins' novel, but it also fits neatly into Hollywood's tendency to recycle successful formats.

The glitzy talk show hosted by the lavender-hairedCaesar Flickerman(Stanley Tucci) re-surfaces, as does ultra-flamboyantEffie Trinket(Elizabeth Banks), who oversees Katniss and Peeta. The capital city of Panem is as gleaming as ever, but legions of military police look like they're wearing dusted-offStar WarsStormtrooper costumes.

The post-apocalyptic story starts slowly, building momentum. It begins to lag about two hours in. More judicious editing would have improved it. Also, the moral implications of the bloodbath seem less troubling to the contestants, which is a distressing turn.

Overall, the sequel to last year'sHunger Gamesis grittier and the atmosphere more brooding, which suits the increasingly dystopian theme of the stories. But it also feels like a re-tread.

Katniss starts out haunted by the games and Peeta is disillusioned that her part in their romance was apparently just for the cameras. She is torn between two would-be lovers-Peeta, whom she fought with and admires, and her childhood friend and beauGale Hawthorne(Liam Hemsworth). The teen love triangle remains front and center, to keep youthful book fans engaged. But the film's social commentary on celebrity obsession is more intriguing than the bland teen romance.

While sci-fi special effects like blood rain, vicious baboons and a poisonous fog are striking, a cliffhanger ending comes almost abruptly.

Still,The Hunger Games: Catching Fireis crowd-pleasing and compelling, most of all because of its fiery, charismatic heroine.

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