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The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers   A

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, Peter Jackson (based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Miranda Otto, Christopher Lee, Brad Dourif, Bernard Hill, Andy Serkis.

Review by Rob Vaux

Gather 'round the tree everyone! Our Christmas present is here! The Lord of the Rings, the beloved fantasy epic that let us use the words "bad-ass elf" in a non-ironic context, returned to screens last Wednesday with a thunderous roar. After blowing the world's socks off with the first film in the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, director Peter Jackson has some very big shoes to fill for the follow-up. I say "follow-up," because calling The Two Towers a sequel does it a tremendous disservice. Sequels entail a secondary effort, an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle after time has dispersed it. The creative people involved have usually gone on to other projects in the intervening years, making it very tricky to rekindle the same creative charge. But there was no gap between Fellowship and The Two Towers. Principle photography for all three films took place during a single shoot, and Jackson and his staff have worked on nothing else since then. This isn't three films, it's one; we saw the first third of it last Christmas, and now we have the second. The energy is the same as it was for Fellowship; the juice hasn't been allowed to escape. And just as Fellowship awed us with its near-perfect interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, so does The Two Towers uphold -- with a few small bumps -- the sky-high standard set by its predecessor.

Indeed, the bumps come about less from its own doing than from its placement in the middle of the trilogy. Situated between the beginning of Frodo Baggins' quest to destroy the One Ring of Power and its fiery climax (due in The Return of the King next winter), it remains dependent upon the other films for its momentum. We've already been introduced to most of the main characters, and gotten to know their quirks and foibles. The Two Towers expands upon them, but relies solely on its predecessor for the all-important exposition. Viewing this film before a screening of Fellowship would be a huge mistake. It doesn't even bother with a synopsis or subtitles; it simply throws us headfirst into the action.

The Two Towers themselves belong to each of The Lord of the Ring's principle villains -- the title character Sauron, bound in the form of a flaming eye, and the traitorous wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) who has turned his back on the forces of light. The Two Towers concerns itself mainly with the latter. Having raised an army of inhuman soldiers (featured in the climax of the first film), Saruman now unleashes them on the unsuspecting kingdoms of humankind... starting with the nearby land of Rohan. He doesn't want to conquer or subjugate humanity: he wants to wipe them out. "There will be no dawn for men," he snarls in the film's trailer, and he's not speaking metaphorically. Into these dark clouds comes the sundered Fellowship, the band of heroes charged with protecting Frodo on his quest. Two of their number are dead, and the remainder have been scattered into three groups: Pippen and Merry (Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan), hobbits captured by Saruman's orcs; the human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and his companions Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), in pursuit of those orcs; and Frodo himself (Elijah Wood) who along with his faithful servant Sam (Sean Astin) must take the Ring on the final leg of its journey to Mount Doom.

In the novel, Tolkien divided the action in two, centering the first half on Aragorn and the second on Frodo and Sam. Jackson has no such luxury; instead, he has to segue back and forth between the three central plot arcs, keeping everything together thematically while making sure each thread gets its due attention. It's quite a juggling act (and a very different challenge than Fellowship) but Jackson responds with remarkable confidence. He interlinks each episode with a combination of dialogue and quiet visual cues, letting us view the larger picture through the prism of small, individual episodes. The action is very complicated, and yet we instantly grasp how each element fits into the growing war for control of Middle-earth. Like Fellowship, Jackson intersperses taunt action scenes with remarkable character development, and while The Two Towers falls back on pontification a few times too often, it also avoids unnecessary redundancy. Aragorn and Frodo receive the lion's share of attention (as the former struggles to accept his noble heritage, and the latter fights the Ring's growing corruption), but others get their due as well. Bloom, for example, really comes into his own as Legolas, and his growing bond with Rhys' Gimli brings a subtle charm to the proceedings. For all the pyrotechnics (and there are plenty), it's the quieter moments that ultimately prove The Two Towers' worth.

A few new characters are introduced as well, and while most of them spend their time playing catch up, a pair leave lasting impressions. Everyone's abuzz about Gollum (Andy Serkis) -- the loathsome thrall of the Ring whom Frodo and Sam press into service -- and the hype proves well-founded. Gollum was perhaps Tolkien's greatest creation, a figure at once pitiful and terrifying. The skillful blending of Serkis' performance (both vocally and through computer-captured facial movements) with CGI technology results in the most remarkable effects-based figure since the original Yoda, and may produce the first Oscar nomination ever for such a character. A less celebrated but equally promising new addition is the noble Eowyn (Miranda Otto), a Valkyrie tomboy with a batshit crazy gleam in her eye. As the niece of Rohan's King Theoden (Bernard Hill), she maintains a gentle, compassionate facade but Otto's portrayal suggests unspoken depths of passion and pain. With the spotlight focused on other characters, the actress relaxes into her duties... and turns a seemingly throwaway role into something truly memorable.

Then again, very little about The Two Towers isn't memorable. Jackson and his crew have so steeped themselves in the majesty of Tolkien's writing that every frame produces new joys, whether you're a fan of the books or not. Any three-hour movie that passes in an eyeblink is doing something right, and like its predecessor, The Two Towers leaves us yearning for more. No worries on that front, of course. Jackson's extraordinary undertaking comes to a climax next Christmas, promising more of the same wondrous artistry on display here. Eleven months, three weeks, and a handful of days away. Somebody save me a place in line.

Review published 12.19.2002.

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