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Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2003

A towering vision of Tolkien's classic

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Peter Jackson
Running time: 179 minutes
Language: English, Elvish
Opens Feb. 22

There are people out there for whom Peter Jackson's "Lord Of The Rings" films are literally a dream come true, for whom the sight of 10,000 slavering Orcs charging a phalanx of elven archers at the citadel of Helm's Deep is better than sex. These are the sort of rabid fans who can follow the scenes in Elvish without bothering to read the subtitles and who treat the words of J.R.R. Tolkien like those of God almighty.

News photo
Elijah Wood in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"

Then there are those viewers who find the whole idea of dwarves, trolls and walking, talking trees engaged in a supposedly mythic struggle of good against evil impossible to take seriously. This problem is only compounded when Jackson lays faux-Celtic flutes and Enya on the soundtrack, and solemn wizards deliver vaguely New Age soliloquies: "One stage of your journey is over, another begins."

Many readers no doubt expect this critic -- no fan of bloated SFX blockbusters -- to weigh in with the latter view and tear into Jackson's work like a howling Nazgul who has caught scent of the One Ring. Perhaps I've just fallen under the spell cast by $300 million worth of special effects, but there's something about the sheer grandeur of Jackson's vision, his obsessive attention to detail and the almost naive reverence he brings to the material that's irresistible.

Where the first film in the trilogy, "The Fellowship Of The Ring," spent much of its time establishing characters, geography and Ring-lore, "The Two Towers" -- Jackson's second installment -- starts with a bang and never lets up. Poor old Gandalf is plummeting down a bottomless pit in the mines of Moria, locked in mortal combat with the flame-belching Balrog, while Frodo, the hobbit Ringbearer, and his trusty companion Samwise are traversing menacing moors on the way to Mordor, where they hope to plunge the Ring into the destructive fires of Mount Doom.

Merry and Pippin, the other hobbits, are captives of the Uruk-hai orcs, who are bringing them to Isengard, the tower fortress of the devious wizard Saruman. And in close pursuit is the rest of the Fellowship, warriors Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn, representing the free peoples of Middle Earth: elves, dwarves and men.

The film adequately handles the difficult task of simultaneously advancing these separate adventures. Merry and Pippin get lost in the forest of Fangorn, where they encounter ancient tree-spirits known as Ents. Aragorn and friends enter the kingdom of Rohan, where they find the monarch Theoden under the spell of his Rasputin-like adviser, Grima Wormtongue, an agent of Saruman. Frodo and Sam are stalked by the vile creature Gollum, but after they capture him, Frodo starts feeling sorry for this poor soul who has been twisted by the Ring. Meanwhile, Saruman's army moves on the defenseless kingdom of Rohan, as Mordor's minions deploy against the neighboring land of Gondor. The wraithlike Nazgul, as ever, continue hunting for the Ring . . .

As the above synopsis indicates, "The Two Towers" is mighty long on plot -- even including a few tweaks to the original material -- but it falls short on fleshing out its many characters. Such key figures as Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) barely leave an impression, while such great actresses as Miranda Otto (Eowyn) and Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) seem particularly underused. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) get to bond, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) displays a particularly heroic determination, and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) gets all the jokes, but it's Gollum who really steals the show.

This character was played by Andy Serkis -- his voice and facial expressions remain, but are subsumed by an entirely CG-rendered critter. Skeletal and reptilian, bug-eyed and box-eared, Gollum looks great in the shadows, but a bit too conventionally CG-esque (that is, unnatural compared to the actors) when seen up close. Serkis' performance makes him the film's most compelling character. The scene where he has a mad argument with himself about whether or not to trust the "sssneaky little Hobbitssses" is a treat to watch, and it's the only performance to fully express the inner conflict between darkness and light that is central to the film.

If you want depth, though, read the books; Jackson, for the most part, is concerned with fully realizing the fantastic landscapes and massive battles that are only sketched out by Tolkien. The director has a signature trick that he employs repeatedly to make your jaw drop, a series of shots that go close, medium and wide. He'll bring you in tight on, say, the black hooded void of a Nazgul's face, then pull back to show the huge, screeching winged reptile it's riding on, and then back even wider to show the unbelievably vast vista over which the Nazgul is flying.

Sure, there are a few duff moments -- some of the Orcs look a bit too much like "Evil Dead" refugees, while Treebeard, the king of the Ents, would seem more at home with the cheesy effects of "The NeverEnding Story" -- but when Jackson gets into his set pieces, he'll pull you right into this imaginary world like a vortex.

The siege of Helm's Deep takes place on a set so vast, you'll scarcely believe your eyes as a sea of torch-bearing Orcs spread across the horizon. Jackson knows how to build tension, too, cutting to caves where refugees have fled for sanctuary, cowering in terror as the plodding march of the approaching horde echoes ominously. "The Two Towers" may be less concerned with its characters than with the tide of history that sweeps them up, but the money's all up on the screen, the illusion is complete and you will be floored.

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