But then, on the day of a big competition, Ron suddenly loses his nerve. He seems to be convinced he'll fail -- not just on the Quidditch field, but at everything else in life. So the great Harry Potter -- our scrupulous hero, and now the Chosen One -- does something we'd never expect of him: He slips Ron a potion, and of course, Ron kicks ass.
No, don't worry. Harry doesn't really cheat. And I (the other Harry, heh heh heh) have not gone mad. Stepping into Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the adaptation of J.K. Rowling's lengthy penultimate novel, is like walking in on the middle of something. I say that as an observation, not as a criticism. In fact, if director David Yates and screenwriter Steven Kloves, both veterans of the series, had wasted our time with catch-up exposition, I would have snuck out for popcorn until they got it over with.
We don't need to be caught up with Harry Potter any more. We know these characters better than we knew Luke and Leia in The Return of the Jedi. To call them our "friends" would be clichéd and pathetic: They are just fictional characters, after all. But who doesn't like to be told a good story, especially when the A-list of British stage and screen performs it, and when the three young stars who play Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) have clearly grown as actors under their tutelage.
It takes almost 45 minutes for the central story to emerge in Half-Blood Prince, and when it does, it's worth it. This is clearly a transitional book for Rowling, one that counts on our intimate knowledge of the past and our wonder about how it will all turn out. Seems Voldemort just won't let things go: He still wants to rule the magical world (truly, the banality of evil), and good wizard Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) will do anything -- ANYTHING! -- to stop him.
So in a sort of mission-almost-impossible, Dumbledore recruits Harry, who's really still just a kid, to get close to the school's newly rehired Potions professor, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who taught Voldemort back when he was just a dark-souled pup named Tom Riddle. Harry still thinks it's the slithery Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) and the snotty student Draco Malfoy (Tom Fenton) who work for the dark lord. But Dumbledore persuades Harry otherwise with the two most powerful magic words in his vocabulary: "Trust me."
So what, then, do we get for the movie's first 45 minutes? The same very satisfying thing we get for the almost two hours that follow. Half-Blood Prince is the most intimate of the six movies so far, with the friendship between our three young musketeers very tight and lovely, and with their adolescent sexual desires blossoming to the point of distraction (theirs, not ours).
There are many other intimacies as well: between Harry and Dumbledore, between Dumbledore and Snape, between Harry and the Weasleys (Harry now lives with them). It's beautifully done, and never overdone, like the often-sappy buddy-buddy Jedi. This is a near-perfect entertainment, with its story parceled out in bites to keep us chewing, its special effects more seamless than ever (the Quidditch match, in closeup, is especially good), and consistently strong character relationships tying it all together.
There are themes, of course, but we needn't bother ourselves with those. Good and evil, love and friendship, trust and fidelity, children as our future -- only Lord Voldemort doesn't already know this stuff (or maybe he does, the rotten bastard). A few times in Half-Blood Prince, Kloves (or maybe Rowling -- I don't read the books) plays with our familiarity. "Why is it when something happens," Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) asks Harry and pals, "it is always you three?" Ron replies: "I've been asking myself the same thing for six years." And when Dumbledore apologizes for taking Harry to an especially creepy place, Harry tells him: "Actually, sir, after all these years, I just go with it." I think we all grok where he's coming from.