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Shadows of the Empire

With Episode II, George Lucas tries to reclaim his lost glory.

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Three years have passed since The Phantom Menace thrilled some and infuriated others, yet the schism in the Church of Lucas remains. Die-hard supporters still refuse to admit that Episode I has some truly awful acting and dialogue; detractors won't acknowledge that, despite its faults, the film is still compulsively watchable. A movie doesn't make in excess of $300 million and break DVD sales records without having some sort of repeat-viewing appeal.

For Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the hype may have been turned down, but the spin machine has still gone into overdrive, with publications such as Time running feature stories that echo Johnny Depp in Ed Wood: Episode I sucked, but hey, the next one will be better!

Indeed, as has been widely publicized in hopes of winning back fans, the infamous Jar Jar gets scant screen time, and what little he does get is genuinely amusing this time around.

A child again plays a key role, but fans of the first trilogy probably won't mind -- it's their beloved bounty hunter Boba Fett. Impressively acted by young New Zealander Daniel Logan, Boba is here under the tutelage of his father, Jango, played by Once Were Warriors' Temuera Morrison, who helps fill the villain void left by Darth Maul's untimely demise.

Episode II isn't at the same level as the original trilogy, but it's definitely an improvement over the last film. It isn't better than Spider-Man, but for a fifth film in a franchise, it holds up far better than one might expect. Best of all, it brings back a sense of danger to its universe as heads and limbs roll.

As in the last film, Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, still the saga's best actor) secretly tries to foment civil war in order to gain emergency war powers that will ultimately result in his becoming emperor. (A cynic might try to make an analogy to current events, but Lucas simply isn't clever enough to have made that possible.)

Meanwhile, a plot to kill Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) reunites her with Jedi knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, more alive this time) and his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, occasionally wooden). Obi-Wan ends up playing detective while Anakin, in the film's most tedious scenes, romps through meadows with Padmé and inevitably falls head over heels in love. An obligatory subplot brings young Skywalker back to Tatooine to pick up C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, who sounds like he sucked down some helium since last time) before everyone reunites for the big final showdown.

The problems with Episode II, big surprise, have to do with plot and characterization, though coscreenwriter Jonathan Hales (The Scorpion King) seems to have had a good influence on Lucas' dialogue. The odd bit of obvious exposition ("That's Anakin's signal. It's coming from Tatooine. What in the blazes is he doing there?" Obi-Wan asks his non-English-speaking robot) remains, but some of Clones -- Obi-Wan's reference to the Jedi temple as the old folks' home -- is actually witty.

A dignified but underused Christopher Lee, in a standout performance, is this movie's Colonel Kurtz, a renegade frequently talked about and eventually found in a dark corner of space with the tribes that are now under his command. Once he does appear, he owns the screen. And when another master hits the battle (call it Crouching Yoda, Hidden Saber), you'll likely cheer and laugh -- Yoda's ears bounce like the old puppet's, but his digital facial expressions are often dubious.

The film itself follows suit -- sometimes it bounces along; other times it feels forced. Kids and hard-core fans will love it regardless, and those who don't will nonetheless be talking about it for the next three years.

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