By all rights, sequels should improve on the original. We’re already on board with the story, the screenwriter can jump right into the action, and there’s much more opportunity for character development. And things can get a little darker and more interesting, too. (Look no further than The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight for proof.)

Fortunately, Catching Fire, the second of four movies in the The Hunger Games series does, keeping everything that was good in the original (Jennifer Lawrence) and jettisoning the bad (director Gary Ross and his spastic camera). And along the way it becomes one of the better sequels of the past decade.

Even though screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) still can’t figure out quite how to make the story’s supposed love triangle interesting (or even relevant), the rest of the film is so enthralling, that only ends up being a minor flaw. (And, in all fairness, it’s more the fault of novelist Suzanne Collins than the screenwriters anyway.)

Picking up where The Hunger Games left off, Catching Fire begins with victors and fake-lovebirds Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) mechanically making the rounds on their tour of the country. They soon come to realize, though, that an uprising is underway against President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his posh Capitol friends. In an attempt to stem the tide, Snow decides the annual Hunger Games this go-round should include participants from previous games, which, means Katniss is heading back into the arena.

Catching Fire benefits most from Lawrence herself. The one downside (though not really) is that her talent is so far ahead of anyone else in the cast that no one can come close to matching her intensity. It’s almost as if LeBron James decided to play some pick-up hoops at an elementary school without letting up any. Halfway through Catching Fire you may just want to reach through the screen and swat away Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth (and Katniss’ back-home love Gale) for being paling so much in comparison. Thankfully, though, we do get the fantastic perma-smirk of Sam Claflin’s Finnick to help save the day somewhat.

And can we all just say a clear and resounding “thank you” to whomever’s decision is was to ditch Ross and instead hire Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants) to take over directing duties from here on out? After suffering through two hours of Shaky-Cam Syndrome in The Hunger Games, you’ll finally be able to just sit back and enjoy Katniss’ escapades without having to take several doses of Dramamine.

Not that “enjoy” is the proper word, mind you. Catching Fire is brutal, harrowing, and even downright terrifying in many parts, especially once the “game” gets going in earnest, about 90 minutes in. Killer fog and psychotic monkeys (among other things) conspire again Katniss, and both Lawrences gets better and better as the obstacles get more and more insane.

The screenplay seems much more polished, too. Arndt (writing as Michael DeBruyn) and Beaufoy wisely give Lawrence the bulk of the heavy lifting, but they don’t short-shrift the supporting cast either. Elizabeth Banks, as Katniss’ chaperone, is even more deliciously flamboyant here, and the same is also true with scene-stealing Stanley Tucci as emcee Caesar Flickerman. And let’s just agree now that costume designer Trish Summerville (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) gets on the short list for this year’s Oscar, shall we?

If Catching Fire is any indication (and let’s say a little prayer that it is), the Hunger Games series has not only found its footing but is destined to become one of the more captivating movie series in recent memory.

4.5/5 stars