Finally - finally! - the "Twilight" franchise embraces its own innate absurdity with the gleefully over-the-top conclusion, "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2."
This is by far the best film in the series. This does not necessarily mean it's good. But as it reaches its prolonged and wildly violent crescendo, it's at least entertaining in a totally nutso way.
The first four adaptations of Stephenie Meyer's mega-best sellers about the girl-vampire-werewolf love triangle (the final book was divided into two films for maximum box-office benefit) were, for the most part, laughably self-serious affairs full of mopey teen angst, stilted dialogue and cheesy special effects. Sure, they pleased their fervent audience, made billions of dollars worldwide and turned their three core actors into instant superstars. But they weren't what you would call high-quality cinematic experiences.
Now, Bill Condon (who also directed last year's "Breaking Dawn - Part 1") finally lets his freak flag fly. Here is the Condon of "Gods and Monsters," the one who loves lurid horror. Here is the Condon of "Dreamgirls," the one with an eye for panache. His final "Twilight" movie dares to have a little fun - it actually makes you laugh intentionally for once, teetering on self-parody as it does.
Like something out of a telenovela, Condon cuts between characters standing around staring at each other, the dramatic score punctuating each piercing look. Maybe they're reading each other's minds, sharing visions of the future or shielding each other from harm. Maybe they just can't think of anything to say.
Regardless, it's all prelude for the massive showdown that awaits in the film's second half. There have been teasers about a bold plot twist - and we wouldn't dream of spoiling it here because watching it play out with a packed and rabid audience is a complete kick - but Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg have taken a big risk in deviating from the book, and it pays off big-time from a narrative perspective. It's kind of amazing that this thing got a PG-13 rating.
First, though, "Breaking Dawn - Part 2" must pick up where part one ended.
No longer torn between two amorous, animalistic suitors, Bella (Kristen Stewart) has married vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson), produced his hybrid spawn and been turned into one of the undead herself to avoid actual death during childbirth. Now she gets to enjoy all the perks of living forever - unstoppable strength and speed, the thrill of hunting for fresh blood and a seemingly unlimited sex drive. (The visuals still look awfully clunky and fake, especially in these scenes where Edward and Bella are running and jumping through the forest. At least the werewolves have stopped talking to each other, though.)
And Stewart seems to be enjoying herself for the first time, too. She's done away with the sulking and lip-biting and thrives within her newfound ferocious femininity. The swoony Edward almost feels like an afterthought here: This is Bella's time to sparkle.
Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the childhood friend and werewolf who was competing for her affections in small-town Forks, Wash., is still around and he's assumed a new role: He has "imprinted" on Bella's newborn daughter, the hideously named Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy), which makes him her protector and lover for life. Yes, this is creepy, but at least the film acknowledges as much. "Breaking Dawn - Part 2" goofs on the famously ab-tacular Lautner by having him not just take his shirt off but strip down all the way to his underwear. Prepare yourself: The audience shrieks are deafening.
But the arrival of this beautiful child draws the suspicion and ire of the Volturi, the vampire elite living in Italy who ... I don't know, govern over these kinds of things? Anyway, they view this half-human, half-vampire as a threat. The bloodsucking Cullen clan and Jacob and his wolfy buddies must band together to prevent an attack, and to prove that the girl's rare existence should be treasured. They do this by traveling the world, gathering other vampires of various ethnicities to form a sort of United Nations of the undead who will vouch for her.
We are all Renesmee Cullen.
The gifted and versatile Michael Sheen unleashes the wonderfully weird performance we always knew was in him as Aro, the sinister leader of the Volturi. His high-pitched laugh alone is both hysterical and menacing. Meanwhile, Dakota Fanning as the powerful Volturi guard Jane maybe says one word during the entire movie, instead letting her intense, red eyes speak for her.
It's a massive cast that feels even larger during the closing credits, which features a parade of seemingly every actor who's ever appeared in a "Twilight" movie. (Hey, there's Anna Kendrick! Oh yeah, and Bryce Dallas Howard!) It's a classy and strangely melancholy send-off. Just as the "Twilight" series improves, it's going away.
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2," a Summit Entertainment release, is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sensuality and partial nudity. Running time: 115 minutes. Three stars out of four.