By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, and Wes Bentley
Even before I read the Hunger Games series, I never quite understood the comparisons to ‘that other series for teens.’ Civil war between a bunch of teenagers for the enjoyment of the rich was way different sounding than a girl with pouty lips stuck in a love triangle between a not quite vampire and a badly CGI’ed werewolf. Then, when I actually read the series, it hit me: These books are not necessarily about growing up. They’re about being stuck in a position where you have to. They’re about a sort of teenagers stuck in hell scenario where, if I were in this position at 16 years old, would probably cringe in a corner to die. While I did enjoy this series of books (as compared to Twilight, which after being forced by my girlfriend at the time to give it a try, I put down after 70 pages) the feelings of a film being stirred went through my mind. With Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) onboard as director and co-writer, my mind was at a bit of a loss. Ross, while a great writer, doesn’t necessarily have any trademark skills that made me think he had the wherewithal to do this movie. Yet, with author of the series Suzanne Collins also serving as co-screenwriter (with Ross and Billy Ray) and executive producer of the project, the image of this book being put to screen really started filling my mind with hope. And, you know what? All images pointed to the positive. The question is, were these images that came true?
The answer is a definitive yes. Ross proves here that he was in fact the right man for this job, setting the stage of scale beautifully with many shots of the landscapes from which the action in the latter half of the film takes place. And, just as important as the games themselves, he has done here what George Lucas could not in the Star Wars prequels: he makes the politics through the first half of the movie interesting and gripping. The stakes in these games are set up nicely, not feeling drawn out and staged, so that even someone who is 15 can follow it. Directing wise, Ross nails it, and accomplishes the impossible in that both fans of the series and newcomers to this franchise can follow and appreciate what is being brought forth upon them.
However, none of this would have mattered a bit if the casting hadn’t been perfect. And, you know what? Producers knocked this out of the park as well. From the expected great performances (I could not get enough of Harrelson’s character of Haymitch every single time he was onscreen), to the comeback worthy (Bentley hasn’t been this good since American Beauty) and even the unexpected (Kravitz was surprisingly soft and delightful as Cinna), everybody hit their marks in this world, and made the surrounding storyline easy to go along with. Elizabeth Banks, whom I almost didn’t even recognize, was different than I am used to seeing, but nonetheless good as Effie, and Tucci turns in yet another great performance as Caesar, the kooky, blue haired talk show host who interviews the Tributes before the Games. And Hemsworth, as Katniss’ would-be soul mate Gale, did not have as big of a part here as I was expecting. But, you get the feeling watching him here that they are setting him up to be a major part of the next film in the series. Characters you root for. Characters you hate. But, characters you understand and sympathize with. All of these and more are what these actors brought to the table. And, again, combined with Ross’ direction, made for a rather enjoyable experience.
However, while the background characters carried a lot of the brunt in the early part of the movie, it really was all about the two leads, and whether they could carry this movie. And, again, the casting could not have been more perfect. Hutcherson (who was great in 2010’s Oscar nominated The Kids Are Alright) is great as Peeta. And, when he tells Caesar about his fondness for Katniss, he has a look in his eyes that most actors his age cannot convey. Speaking of looks in the eyes, as the lead character, I am not sure I was so high on Lawrence as the majority of fans were (I was thinking Hanna’s Saoirse Ronan would have been a better fit). But, really, this is HER role. And, make no mistake about it: she owns here. She spends the majority of the second half of this film flying solo while hunting, and the looks of panic in her eyes, combined with utter distress at a particular instance (which I will not spoil. But, people who have read the books will know what character’s death I am talking about) make it clear that Lawrence is here to stay. Winter’s Bone (and the subsequent Oscar nomination that became of it) proved she could act. Her portrayal of Mystique in X-Men: First Class proved she could be good as a supporting character in a blockbuster film. Here, she proves she is a star. And a damn good acting one at that.
Any gripes about this puppy? A few. As good as Harrelson was, the pompous character of Haymitch was really tamed down from the books. Maybe they had to do it (I mean, it’s not like this film needs any more darkness). But, every single time he was on the screen, he owned. I would have liked to see what he could have done if Ross let him rip! Maybe, since his character gets even more dark in the other two books, he will do exactly this in future sequels. And, the other reservation I had about Ross’ directing of the intensely violent scenes from the book also proved to be true. Yes, this is a very intense movie. However, feelings of inference are not to be denied here. Don’t get me wrong: I am not asking for Saw style violence. But, while there were a few blood spurts, the feeling of intense unrest was not to be felt nor seen. And, sadly, an R rating, along with everything that you can do when you have it, would have solved this problem.
But, who am I to say? This movie really has it all. It is, if I may say so, a Mad Max combined with Battle Royale of the day. And, Ross has sprinkled enough romance & good storytelling to mold this film into a masterpiece. Roll with Harrelson. Laugh at Tucci. But, more than anything, feast your eyes on Lawrence. Because, with her portrayal of Katniss here, she has planted herself solely into an elite bunch. Take notice, and get used to seeing her. Go see these Games. Intensely romantic, you will find yourself wanting more. And, if I am wrong, you can always enter me into the Tribute lottery.
4.5 out of 5