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LUCAS STRIKES BACK

'Attack' regains momentum lost by previous episode

The hum is back in George Lucas' light saber. 'Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones' is a vast improvement over 'Episode I,' and it's maybe the most enjoyable episode since 'The Empire Strikes Back.'

Perhaps Yoda sat Lucas down and set him straight. 'A disturbance in the Force there is. Disappointment and disillusionment, threatening they are. Restore harmony you must.'

Not to say Lucas is completely back in peak form, but this could be the closest that many viewers will come to the experience of seeing 'Star Wars' 25 years ago.

You needn't be a total fanatic to treasure memories of those first screenings, when audiences were spontaneously and thoroughly delighted. Few preview trailers had appeared before the film's opening, and the distributor was unsure of what it had in this rollicking space opera combining elements of once-popular genres (Flash Gordon-like cliffhangers, Westerns, swashbucklers and war movies).

Film buffs were familiar with Lucas from his hit 'American Graffiti' and the cultish 'THX-1138,' but no one knew what to expect from 'Star Wars.' Lucas himself claims he didn't expect much in terms of box office. So the projectors fired up like a light saber, the title appeared with an explosive fanfare, and a space cruiser appeared above the crowd and just kept coming and coming.

The rest is hysteria.

Younger viewers were thrilled by something spectacularly new; the rest were smitten by the ingenious sense of reinvention. In the years that followed, Lucas completed his trilogy with a second film that darkened and deepened the original themes and a third that mostly tried to sell Ewok dolls.

By that time the word 'blockbuster' was as much a generic designation as the word for a big hit. Summer was blockbuster season, and the marketing department was the new seat of power.

Now, the unavoidable wave of hype preceding a film's release Ñ which the success of 'Star Wars' helped inspire Ñ makes reactions such as those that greeted the original film virtually impossible. Seeing Lucas get back to storytelling basics isn't quite the same (after all, you can only be new once), but it'll do in a time when we usually feel as if we've seen a movie even before we get to the theater.

'Attack' feels like a real 'Star Wars' movie again. We aren't lost from the start, as we were last time. All that Trade Federation gibberish in 'The Phantom Menace' had us thinking we were watching CNN or 'Wall Street Week.' More corporate entity than filmmaker by that time, Lucas apparently thought audiences would be enthralled by a heroic saga of corporate tribulation.

'Episode I' offered little sense of its characters or how they related to the original trilogy. We were told a dour, towheaded moppet would become Darth Vader, but we never felt it. In spite of video game sequences like the big pod race, the film remained stodgy, confusing and synthetic.

'Episode II,' which seems to have benefited from Lucas' new co-writer Jonathan Hales, is simpler and swifter. A growing separatist rebellion tries to kill Senator PadmŽ Amidala (Natalie Portman). Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) pursues would-be assassin Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) while Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) protects and falls in love with Amidala.

Lucas streamlines the accelerating parallel story lines, delivering rousing action Ñ especially when the Jedi ranks assemble, light sabers flashing, for a climax that even sees Yoda kicking some butt.

Our favorite syntax-challenged minimystic and his Jedi cohort Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), limited mostly to portentous back-and-forth conversations, were beginning to resemble a ventriloquism routine in which the dummy is also the ventriloquist.

But just when you begin to fear that Jackson will take a seat on Yoda's lap, they finally become action figures. They face the film's best new character, Jedi renegade Count Dooku, played by Christopher Lee.

The role practically duplicates Lee's traitorous wizard in 'The Lord of the Rings,' but this veteran's iconic and Force-ful presence helps clear the air of the cuteness that has plagued the series lately.

Best of all, as you may have heard, is the blessedly diminished Binks factor. That blithering digital idiot Jar Jar is quickly whisked off to the Senate, a reminder that politics remain the same whatever galaxy you inhabit.

The other digital creations are as splendid as they should be, given that Lucas is master of the world's premier effects house. More importantly, the effects support the action rather than dominate it, and the action provides a welcome balance of thrills, romance and impending threat.

Still, Han Solo's brand of briskly wry charm and bravado, along with Princess Leia's combative wit, is sorely missed. And the deliberate formality of much of the dialogue sounds better in the mouths of the British participants. McGregor's Obi is less wan and more Kenobi this time, with a trace of Alec Guinness in his speech. Portman, however, still seems corseted by her role in spite of loosened-up costumes that show a bit of skin.

As the future Darth Vader, Christensen bears the most weight and acquits himself well enough, with an occasional petulance playing into Anakin's growing arrogance and desire for power. His crucial trip to the planet Tantooine makes connections with the original 'Star Wars' that similar scenes in the last film missed entirely.

Even given this encouraging recovery, Lucas has his work cut out for him in the next, inevitably most ambitious installment. There's probably no way he can recombine genre DNA as vividly as he did the first time, but 'Attack of the Clones' suggests he's up to the substantial task ahead.

At this point, it's enough for the menacing disenchantment of 'Episode I' to seem like a long-ago, far-far-away phantom.