After the galloping intelligence displayed in the first two parts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, your fear may be that the director, Peter Jackson, would become cautious and unimaginative with the last episode, The Return of the King. Look at what The Matrix did to the Wachowski brothers; the last two were like action movies made for CNBC.
But Mr. Jackson crushes any such fear. His King is a meticulous and prodigious vision made by a director who was not hamstrung by heavy use of computer special-effects imagery. A sequence in which a number of signal fires are lighted on a stretch of mountain ranges simultaneously is a towering moment; it has the majesty that every studio's opening logo shot sprains itself striving to achieve.
Mr. Jackson does take his time, but he's not sloughing off here. Rather he is building toward a more than solid conclusion. The grandiloquence that sustained the second installment, The Two Towers, with its pounding and operatic martial fury -- a movie that actually created a state of siege and left audiences hanging -- can be found here.
Yet by its end King glides to the gentle bonhomie that opened the Rings movies, with an epilogue that is tinged with regret. It's been a long time since a commercially oriented film with the scale of King ended with such an enduring and heartbreaking coda: ''You can't go back. Some wounds don't heal.'' It's an epic about the price of triumph, a subversive victory itself in a large-scale pop action film.
The closest thing to a recap of the previous films, The Fellowship of the Rings and Towers, this picture supplies is showing Gollum (Andy Serkis) as a regular hobbit -- Smeagol -- before he was subsumed by his appetite for the glittering One Ring and transformed into a larval creature that looks like the worm Smeagol is shown putting on a hook. It's the One Ring that the hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) has to transport to Mordor and destroy it there.
The collaboration of actor and director -- Mr. Serkis and Mr. Jackson -- for Gollum is a frighteningly believable realization of computer imagery as performer. Gollum, whose phyllo-dough skin still masks his abrupt and fully felt changes of heart, is as emotionally rich a creation as any actor's work this year. A dialogue he has with his reflection in a pond courses with invective and self-disgust. All of Mr. Jackson's glib, funny pranks in Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners -- in which we were never supposed to be sure what was going on -- prepared him for a dramatic application of those techniques here. (He also employs his haunted-house dexterity in a formidable sequence with a giant spider.)
Gollum's push-pull, divided between his hunger for the ring and his fears, makes him the most tragic figure in the movie. He preys on Frodo's weakened spirit, looking for the moment he can get the ring away and kill them both. The cursed ring pecks away at Frodo's humanity, as Gollum hammers away at the hobbit's remaining panes of will. The only thing keeping the wizened yet infantile goblin at bay is Frodo's loyal ally and sworn protector, Sam (Sean Astin). By making Gollum as integral a part of this tableau as Frodo and Sam, not only is there an important plot point at stake, but the movie is also frosted with misery.
That mournful note echoes as Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and his forces ready for their assault on Sauron's forces, the orcs. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), in a voice sodden with mellow sadness, realizes that Frodo and Sam are on a suicide mission: ''There never was much hope. Just a false hope.'' Sir Ian's eyes move slowly, filled with mystery and pain.
There is a sacrificial cast to the entire endeavor. The dwarf warrior Gimli thrives on this fatalistic bent, and is given a wry heedlessness by John Rhys-Davies; his charm-offense basso rumble is also the voice of the lord of the forest, Treebeard. The pitilessly sure elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom, whose physical élan fills out the role) observes ''a sleepless malice'' watching over them. The hobbit Pippin has a much bigger role in this battle, and Billy Boyd is up to it, allowing Pippin to mature.
Aragorn has the slinky swagger and dreamy stubble that make him look like a legend created by Tolkien, Sam Shepard and Ralph Lauren. Fortunately Mr. Mortensen also has a touch of modesty as an actor, which allows him to take up space as if he belongs in the center of the frame rather than battling the other performers for it.
Pippin's pal, Merry (Dominic Monaghan), joins the fight, too, pulled along by Eowyn (Miranda Otto, touchingly ferocious). Ms. Otto stakes a worthy claim for every moment of screen time, while poor Liv Tyler, as the elf princess Arwen, is limited to dialogue that sounds like a spoken portion of a Spinal Tap album. Cate Blanchett's Galadriel hardly appears at all, and Hugo Weaving, as the elf lord Elrond, arrives just in time to answer a trivia question. (Who is the best-known Australian actor to appear in the Matrix and Rings movies?)
The actors all look older than they did in Fellowship, and it fits the strategy of employing the same cast over an extended period for the films. This decision adds fresh dimension to the lingering sadness, as we can see some of the bloom worn out of their flesh and sadder, reddened eyes on all of them.
Their battle weariness is appropriate given whom they are up against. The orcs and their terrifying behemoths of burden have a surreal confidence in victory; they even turn the phrase ''Release the prisoners'' into a threat. Sauron's misshapen foot soldiers and their collection of mutated animal freaks look as if they've crawled out of the sewers of Love Canal looking for summer work.
King, which opens round the country tomorrow, features more prognostication and exposition than its predecessors. Yet despite all of the setups required, Mr. Jackson maintains tension. In Towers, the director and his fellow screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, secured a spiritual fidelity to the novel. In King they manage that and far more; the last third is especially condensed, and Aragon's role in the last battle is fleshed out. But the Tolkien search for purity is central to their King, too. And the movie isn't as exclusionary as the books' implicit Christian forcefulness, which made Middle Earth a re-creation of the Crusades.
King is the product of impressive craft and energy. The ''sleepless malice'' is aligned with controlled chaos; the sizable exertion of concentration from Mr. Jackson is multiplied by his Rings team, including his cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie; composer, Howard Shore; production designer, Grant Major; and the battalion of other artisans responsible for the costumes, makeup and special effects.
It is evident that the grip of The Return of the King on Mr. Jackson is not unlike the grasp the One Ring exerts over Frodo: it's tough for him to let go, which is why the picture feels as if it has an excess of endings. But he can be forgiven. Why not allow him one last extra bow?
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is rated PG-13 for a stunning mastery of violence and intense scenes of bloodletting.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS
The Return of the King
Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Mr. Jackson, based on the book by J. R. R. Tolkien; director of photography, Andrew Lesnie; edited by Jamie Selkirk and Annie Collins; music by Howard Shore with the song ''Into the West'' performed by Annie Lennox; production designer, Grant Major; special makeup, creatures, armor and miniatures by Richard Taylor; produced by Barrie M. Osborne, Mr. Jackson and Ms. Walsh; released by New Line Cinema. Running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes.
This film is rated PG-13.
WITH: Elijah Wood (Frodo), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Sam), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli and voice of Treebeard), Bernard Hill (Theoden), Billy Boyd (Pippin), Dominic Monaghan (Merry), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Miranda Otto (Eowyn), David Wenham (Faramir), Karl Urban (Eomer), John Noble (Denethor), Andy Serkis (Gollum/Smeagol), Ian Holm (Bilbo), Sean Bean (Boromir) and Alan Howard (voice of the Ring). (January 9, 2004 issue)
Film Review: By Elvis Mitchell
Sun / Star, Manila