28 February 2018
For the last decade and a half, Peter Jackson has been bringing audiences to the legendary world of JRR Tolkien's Middle-Earth.
And for the moment, "The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies" is the final piece in this cinematic tapestry -- the big action-packed climax to the first half of this story. While it has some weak spots (such as the whole awkward subplot involving Tauriel), it packs a devastating wallop to anyone who has come to love the characters over the past two movies, from the stubborn Dwarf king Thorin to the doughty little Hobbit.
Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) is only barely stopped by Bard (Luke Evans), who manages to take down the dragon with his black arrow... but not before Smaug destroys Laketown. Bard becomes the de facto leader of the refugees, who find themselves starving and homeless as winter approaches. Thranduil (Lee Pace) comes to help them with food and other supplies, but he's also there to back up Bard's claim on a share of the Dwarvish gold, and reclaim a certain item from Erebor.
Meanwhile, the White Council comes to Dol Guldur to rescue Gandalf from the mysterious Necromancer. And they soon find that he was right about the Necromancer's true identity, and the horrifying spectres that are rising to menace the world. And Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) head to the fortress of Gundabad to figure out what is going on with the orcs.
And back at the Lonely Mountain, Thorin (Richard Armitage) is seized by "dragon sickness," a lust for treasure that makes him a paranoid wreck unmoved by the two armies massing on his doorstep. Bilbo must take desperate measures to keep Thorin's mad greed from starting a war -- but when Dwarf and Orc armies arrive, war between the armies becomes an inevitability.
"The Battle of Five Armies" is best appreciated as the final part of one very, very long movie. "An Unexpected Journey" set the scene and began the journey slowly, and "The Desolation of Smaug" was an increasingly tense build to the climax. This movie IS that climax -- at least half of it is an epic battle between multiple armies, swinging between different characters in a multilayered battle royale.
Expect lots of bloody duels on the ice, elven acrobatics, and a ragged army of angry fishermen running through a ruined city. Just as it seems that the good guys are about to win, they're suddenly bludgeoned by a new attack that leaves them crippled and desperate. And the bloody consequences of the battle isn't limited just to nameless extras -- some characters whom viewers will have grown to love will die, and Jackson gives their deaths the painful pathos they deserve.
But Jackson hasn't lost his touch for the quieter moments. The aftermath of Smaug's death has a haunting quality as the Dwarves wander their ruined halls, and the audience sees Thorin growing progressively more detached from reality. And the movie's final scenes are bittersweet ones -- the everyday world seemed stained with blood and shadowed by the presence of Sauron. Things suddenly feel unbalanced and uneasy, even if the sun is shining and spring has come again.
But there are some things that really should have been cut, such as the rather silly romance subplot -- it feels like the studio decided, "Female viewers won't watch unless there's romance!" and demanded one that makes little sense. And with the Master gone, the character of Alfred becomes less villainous sidekick and more annoyance.
But one thing nobody can complain about is the acting. Martin Freeman's Bilbo is sometimes eclipsed by the dark, brooding, hubris-crippled Thorin, but he remains the amiable heart of a big, splashy, action-packed movie. Armitage is the other half of the movie's soul, slowly twisted by his decades-long obsession with regaining Erebor, and his increasingly mad lust for its gold. His final gut-wrenching scene with Freeman is absolutely perfect, bringing their troubled friendship -- and Thorin's classic hubris -- to its inevitable conclusion.
There are also excellent smaller performances by Ken Stott as the grandfatherly Balin, McKellen as a rather battered, desperate Gandalf, John Bell as Bard's tough teen son, and Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee in one brief, intense scene at Dol Guldur. Lilly and Bloom are a bit wasted, though -- they don't have a lot to do, plotwise.
Two particular scene-stealers are Evans and Pace, as the two kings -- one old and one new -- who butt heads with Thorin. Evans brings a passionate, desperate energy to Bard's role as a loving father, and easily extends that same protective care to all the people from Laketown. And we see a bit of Thranduil's raw pain and grief under his haughty smirk, when he wanders past the bloodied bodies of slain Elves.
"The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies" is top-heavy on action and tragedy both, filling in the last gap in the saga of the hobbits and the One Ring. It has some missteps, but the passion and grief make it a powerful experience. And all the brilliant, epic action scenes don't hurt either.