THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (8 out of 10) Co-written and directed by Peter Jackson (based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien); starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly and the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch; rated PG-13 (extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images); in general release, playing in either 2D, 3D or 3D IMAX; running time: 161 minutes.

When it comes to Peter Jackson, there’s probably one thing on which we can all agree: The dude loves him some J.R.R. Tolkien.

The New Zealand director’s filmic adaptations of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy were either too faithful or they weren’t faithful enough, depending on your own love of/perspective on Tolkien. But no one could say he didn’t put his heart and soul into those productions.

His equally ambitious, three-part cinematic take of Tolkien’s single-volume The Hobbit, have the same share of highlights and problems. For better or worse, the first film in the latter trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, strayed dangerously close to becoming the movie that was skewered by the Kevin Smith-written characters in Clerks 2: There was a lot of walking. So much of it, in fact, that the naysaying complaints about material “padding” – to facilitate three movies – seemed perfectly valid.

Luckily, the second part, The Desolation of Smaug is a considerable improvement on its predecessor. Oh, there are still a lot of scenes featuring characters walking. But they seem briefer and more relevant to the action, and the bits of necessary humor are not so dopey, juvenile and lowbrow (the flatulence and other bodily secretion humor in the first Hobbit was a low point for the Jackson-Tolkien adaptations to date).

Better yet, there seems to be more action this time around. It’s much more thrilling and is, again, pertinent, necessary action. And the character moments just work better in this installment. It’s almost as if Jackson and his talented cast shook off the first film’s dusty, crusty layer and got down to business. (The three films were actually shot consecutively, so it only seems that way.)

The Desolation of Smaug certainly doesn’t waste much time getting back into the action – well, it does after a quick, bread-breaking flashback sequence that features the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and would-be Dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and fills newcomers in on what they need to know about the story so far.

Thorin and his party of fellow Dwarves are hoping to make their way to the Lonely Mountain, to reclaim Thorin’s throne and reunite their scattered people. But the path is perilous. While they’ve survived an attack by orcs in the Misty Mountains, those threats (and others) are tracking them through Mirkwood Forest.

Things look even more imposing once they actually get to the Lonely Mountain (if they even do). The fierce dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) lies in wait, protecting his ill-gotten treasure. But Thorin and Co. have one secret weapon: the title character, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), whom they believe will be able to burgle his way into the Secret Door, into Smaug’s lair. 

Meanwhile, Gandalf, has sensed there are dark forces building, and has left our heroes on their own, so he can confront this additional threat head-on.

As he did with the Rings cast, Jackson has to juggle a huge ensemble. But he does manage to give most of his cast their time and even shines a spotlight on a couple of breakout (or even returning) characters. Evangeline Lilly (TV’s Lost) kicks a surprising amount of butt in her supporting performance as an elf warrior, while Orlando Bloom seems to be enjoying himself more than usual, reprising his role as Legolas.

(Lilly’s Tauriel just might be the female cosplay costume for next year, while males can try their hand at Legolas… or the less-fit ones can settle for being Freeman’s slightly less heroic Bilbo.)

Both Lilly and Bloom are front-and-center for the film’s best action sequence, one in which they take on an orc army, chasing them across rocks, rivers and a forest, as well as over the tops of some Dwarf heads. Though even this pales in comparison to the highly anticipated, very tense and intense Bilbo-Smaug confrontation. (Cumberbatch appears to be echoing the late George Sanders; his Smaug has the same intonation and menace of Sanders’ Shere Khan, from Disney’s The Jungle Book.)

And yes, the film does leave off on a cliffhanger note, to make us anticipate next year’s third in the trilogy (There and Back Again) even more. But it feels less like a cheat than a similar scenes did in the recent Hunger Games sequel, and more like the still-delightfully soul-crushing one in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Jeff Michael Vice, aka Jerk-bot, can be heard reviewing films, television programs, comics, books, music and other things as part of The Geek Show Podcast (www.thegeekshowpodcast.com), as well as be seen reviewing films as part of Xfinity’s Big Movie Mouth-Off (www.facebook.com/BigMovieMouthOff).

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Tags: Lord of the Rings , Peter Jackson , Ian McKellen , Lost , The Hobbit