In The Battle of the Five Armies, the end credits finally roll for the last time on Peter Jackson’s bloated, money-minting Hobbit trilogy (and, hopefully, his obsession with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth universe). If you managed to avoid the previous two films in the series (An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug), the closing chapter isn’t worth sitting through the 330 minutes’ worth of movie that preceded it. But for those who had the patience and fortitude to endure 30-minute dinner scenes, pointless action sequences and the endless monologues of the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) in the first two installments, Jackson rewards your patience big time, kicking things off exactly where Smaug left off, with the fire-breathing monster making its way to Laketown to burn the village into ashes.
The sequence, which runs for a good 15 minutes and serves as a pre-title prologue, is spectacular. As long-winded as Jackson can be as a narrative storyteller, he has few peers at orchestrating giant-scale mayhem. The fiery opening also primes the stage for a movie that, as its title implies, will be heavy on war and combat, replete with elegant shots that speak to Jackson’s ambition and CGI effects that raise the bar on the fantasy genre. Having spent hours establishing the motivations of his large cast of characters, Jackson can finally jump right into what we’ve been waiting to see (and he’s been wanting to do). No matter how you felt about the other two pictures, there’s no denying the director is trying to give you the biggest, most spectacular payoff he can.
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But despite the emphasis on elaborate setpieces (including an hour-long chunk of wild, breathtaking action shot with the sort of imagination and verve that suggests Jackson is at the top of his game when he’s in the mood to play), The Battle of the Five Armies also has something the other Hobbit movies didn’t: A sense of emotional gravity and weight, with real life-and-death consequences. Even the acting seems to have improved. No longer do you feel like harm can’t befall Bilbo (Martin Freeman), even though you know he will survive, or the troubled Thorin (Richard Armitage), who is struggling with a bout of the power-mad crazies, or even the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), one of the many additions to the novel Jackson used to justify a trilogy. Her unspoken love for the injured dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), which felt like eye-rolling plot-padding in Smaug, becomes involving and even touching, especially as the forlorn Legolas (Orlando Bloom) watches from the sidelines.
Although you still have to suffer through bits of pointless business involving Gandalf (Ian McKellen), his still-BFF Saruman (a pre-evil Christopher Lee) and the emergence of the monstrous Sauron, The Battle of the Five Armies is fleet, rousing entertainment with surprising turns of plot and moments of unexpected tragedy. You may even shed a tear or two. Who would have guessed that after sitting through the first two films? Jackson ends The Battle of the Five Armies right at the moment when The Lord of the Rings starts, bringing the story full circle. I still don’t think he needed to make a mammoth trilogy out of such a slim book, but with this closing chapter, you’ll find yourself in a forgiving mood for the director’s self-indulgence. OK, Mr. Jackson, you proved your point by landing the finish. Now please, no more Middle-earth, ever.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Adam Brown, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm.
Director: Peter Jackson.
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 144 minutes. War violence, disturbing imagery, adult themes. Playing at: area theaters.