Until now, the phenomenally successful "Twilight" film franchise has failed to impress beyond its rabid fan base. The original "Twilight" and, to a lesser extent "New Moon," assumed the traits of a low-achieving C-student, the kid with untapped potential who spent more time preening and primping than building character.

In "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" the primping and the preening continues, but in this third movie based on Stephenie Meyer's best-selling series, there's a sense of mature storytelling at work. Greater attention and care paid to developing tension, plot and secondary characters pays off, resulting in an entertaining and slick "Eclipse."

And whether you're a member of Team Edward (the pasty vampire played by strongly cheekboned Robert Pattinson), Team Jacob (the buff teen wolf played by iron-abbed Taylor Lautner) or Team Rewrite (the non-"Twilight" fans who remain baffled by all this "I loooovvvveee you, Bella" business), you'll like agree: this is the best film in the pack.

There are two reasons for this: Director David Slade ("Hard Candy" and "30 Days of Night") is in charge and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (TV's "Dexter") is finally getting a handle on Meyer's story.

Both give the material a darker, sharper tone, one with more bite and wit.


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Of course for every winning snippet of dialogue like this — "I think you'll find the vampire divorce rate a little lower" — there's a cheesy, wince-inducing one such as this — "I'm going to fight for you, until your heart starts beating."

But hey, fellow critics, let's get off our high horse for a bit. After all, this is "Twilight" and it's the chaste, sensual love triangle that's packing 'em into the theaters.

"Eclipse's" meatier plot gives everyone, from cast to crew, a chance to shine, though in some cases it reveals their weak points. That would be you, Lautner: You really need to start flexing those acting muscles more.

The crux of the plot remains the same: Our indecisive, kind-of-annoying heroine Bella (a solid Kristen Stewart even if she's wearing a ridiculous wig at one point) remains torn between the affections of two overprotective suitors, the gentlemanly bloodsucker Edward and the beastly Jacob. Both boys have different ideas about dating: Edward wants to take it slow and easy, Jacob is more of the fast-and-furious sort.

Even though it's hard not to root more for Jacob (not just because his of his gym-bunny body but because he offers Bella a chance to be herself and remain human), we're supposed to side with Edward. Pattinson has a tough sell with Edward, but he's a decent enough actor to make us like him.

In "Eclipse," Bella dodges doubts and a vicious breed of vampires called Newborns that are forming an army in Seattle. Her nemesis from the previous two films, Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), is pulling the strings to avenge the death of her lover at the hands of Edward.

Since everyone wants to protect Bella, an uneasy alliance forms between the feuding vampire family and wolf tribe. This allows Rosenberg to delve into the back stories of characters and gives Slade the chance to show some fast-paced historical flashbacks that give the film more oomph. There's even a scene that oddly but satisfyingly recalls a PG-13 version of "Kill Bill." Nice touch.

Equally fun is watching a seething Edward and a strutting Jacob bristle at each other, their mutual jealousy building into a crescendo during a scene in which the boys are forced to come to a preposterous compromise to save dear Bella.

Do we believe there's a contest here? Not really. But we don't care. "Eclipse" is a convincing piece of entertainment that demonstrates this franchise is starting to realize its full potential.

"The Twilight Saga: Eclipse"

GRADE: B

STARRING: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Ashley Greene, Billy Burke and Dakota Fanning
DIRECTOR: David Slade
WHERE: Bay Area-wide
RATING: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence and some sensuality)
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours, 4 minutes