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Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit” know that the author saved the best material for last, as Tolkien wove his story strands together to create a parable of the wages of vengeance and greed. It’s this narrative balance that makes the last installment of Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” the best of the three “Hobbit” movies, moving from an enjoyable action/battle movie with fantastic visuals into the realm of authentic tragedy.

“The Battle of the Five Armies” takes up precisely where “The Desolation of Smaug” (movie No. 2) left off, when Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his panting, exhausted dwarfish sidekicks, who had just reconquered the Lonely Mountain, watched in horror as the evicted dragon Smaug headed for a vengeful attack on Lake-town.

“What have we done?” asked Bilbo, ending Part II.

Answer: Let loose the Reptile from Hell.

In a breathtaking opening sequence, Smaug firebombs Lake-town with his scorching breath, and the residents’ panicked flight evokes every dreadful image of war refugees you have ever seen.

Next comes the first of two powerful sequences, almost balletic in their grace, that bracket this movie. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) climbs to the one tower still standing in Lake-town. Balancing his last shot on the shoulder of his son, certainly doomed to perish if Smaug prevails, Bard shoots the Black Arrow into the dragon’s vulnerable spot. The terror, concentration and resolve on Bard’s face are something to behold.

Meanwhile, back at the Lonely Mountain, dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, played by Richard Armitage, sits atop his captured golden hoard and succumbs to “dragon-sickness,” a toxic brew of greed, self-absorption and paranoia. Armitage’s performance achieves a Shakespearean-like intensity — he’s a mad king about to pull his loyal followers down with him. Oakenshield trusts no one, including Bilbo, for good reason — watching Oakenshield’s slide into madness, Bilbo has hidden a coveted treasure from him.

As Thorin loses his grip on sanity, the dwarves, the elves and the men of Lake-town fight and parlay over who gets what portion of the gold. As they cavil and threaten, an army of unimaginable evil gathers and finally forces the warring factions to unite against a common foe.

The final part of the movie combines the best and the worst of these films. The best: inspired acting and breathtaking settings. The worst: goofy computer mock-ups of war. The computer-generated portions of the extended battle scenes are driven by improbable scenarios (13 dwarves rally against 30,000 orcs), requiring suspensions of logic that an 8-year-old might rightly refuse to engage in.

But the second defining scene is of beautifully choreographed hand-to-hand combat that throbs with danger and suspense. After the tragic deaths of two of Oakenshield’s dwarfish band, the two mortal enemies, Thorin and the albino orc Azog the Defiler, face off. The struggle and its aftermath have the shivering intensity of a story told around a Viking campfire.

If you’ve read the book, you know how it all ends, with a bittersweet twist. Tolkien knew human nature, he knew politics and he knew how to tell a grand story. I might quibble with the particulars, but Peter Jackson has pulled off a worthy tribute to a timeless tale.

Mary Ann Gwinn: mgwinn@seattletimes.com