The second serving of the hard-hitting teen tetralogy sees reluctant warrior Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) proclaimed a heroine in the dystopian state of Panem and obliged to take part in a victor's tour of the oppressed country. However, the mood of exaltation is replaced by one of rebellion so debonair despot President Snow (Donald Sutherland) pitches her once more into a fight for survival as a means of distracting the masses. Director Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants) ably takes the reins for a sequel that builds on the impressive qualities of the first, none more so than Lawrence's superlative performance.
Those with a ravenous appetite for the cruel and the kitsch will find plenty of nourishment in the second instalment of the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' teen trial literary trilogy.
With director Francis Lawrence replacing Gary Ross, the tone - a neatly winning combination of outrageous camp (Tucci's oily Graham Norton-meets-Peter Stringfellow's MC, fiery ballroom gowns that spontaneously combust) and unabashed brutality (a scene where hunky love interest Gale (Hemsworth) gets a bloody thrashing would make Sam Peckinpah wince) - is seamlessly pursued, offering up increasingly savage scenarios to test Lawrence's stubbornly resourceful heroine Katniss Everdeen.
Following her unconventional victory in the 74th annual Hunger Games - a vicious, dog-eat-dog eliminator which saw her sneakily subvert the system to save the life of fellow Tribute Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) - the pair are proclaimed a sort of Posh'n'Becks of oppressed Panem.
Instructed by President Snow (a smoothly diabolic Sutherland) to embark on a focus-shifting victor's tour of the country on board a retro bullet train (think the Savoy Hotel bar on bogeys), the promotional gadabout backfires as the seething dispossessed overlook her victory but are inspired to storm the barricades by the manner in which she won.
Sensing he's been outplayed, Snow looks to smarmy, game-setting propaganda chief Plutarch Heavensbee (Seymour Hoffman) who comes up with the idea of a goalpost-shifting, all-champions face-off. This contest - grandly titled the 75th Annual Hunger Games: Quarter Quell - will see Katniss's rebellious support melt away when she's revealed as dodgy arch-manipulator.
This exhilarating sequel cements the franchise's position as the teen drama series to beat - from a love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale that throws into relief the anaemia of the Twilight menage a trois to themes of totalitarian state control which render Ender's Game as little more than the story of a bolshie boy scout in space.
Support is superb, ranging from Woody Harrelson's sottishly decent games mentor to Elizabeth Banks' exotically-attired publicist and events manageress while the design, taking in the derelict, mid-west steel town grimness of the districts to a society ball which wouldn't have been out of place at Louis XIV's Versaille.
However, it's the consummate, Oscar-winning artistry of Lawrence that distinguishes this from its bloodless rivals. Katniss is the real deal, a feminist icon who doesn't have to flaunt her curves to catch the eye, preferring old-fashioned derring-do and an unnerving determination to trust nobody to win the day.
It's a thrilling adventure that manages to avoid the scene-setting ennui that cursed the extended travelogue that was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 1 while retreading elements of the first movie - a terrifically tense tournament beneath a vast geo-dome featuring man-eating monkeys and a pustule-inducing mist - yet keeping it fresh.
Looking forward to thirds.