After venturing forth from paradise to traverse Middle-earth last year, Frodo & Co. push closer to hell in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." The middle section of director Peter Jackson's prodigious adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy of good and evil is in some respects a more impressive film than its well received predecessor.

After venturing forth from paradise to traverse Middle-earth last year, Frodo & Co. push closer to hell in “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” The middle section of director Peter Jackson’s prodigious adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy of good and evil is in some respects a more impressive film than its well received predecessor. Marked by nonstop conflict and a gargantuan climactic battle that Akira Kurosawa would have envied, the new picture has a sharper narrative focus and a livelier sense of forward movement than did the more episodic “Fellowship.” There can be no doubt that the vast majority of the worldwide public that gave the first entry an $860 worldwide gross will return for this amply satisfying second serving of fantastical adventure.

Certainly there can be few films so replete with images of death and portents of doom as is “The Two Towers.” At virtually every step, the mostly separated main characters are threatened with extinction, and looming over all is the specter of the gathering army of the dark wizard Saruman, whose victory would eliminate the last remaining bastion of significant resistance to his quest for total dominance over Middle-earth.

“It’s getting heavier,” laments Frodo (Elijah Wood) about the Ring to his genial companion Sam (Sean Astin) as they make their way across some imposing mountains en route to the dreaded Mordor, the only place the Ring can be destroyed so as to prevent the Dark Lord Sauron from establishing an empire of evil. The two Hobbits aren’t alone for long, however, as they apprehend the strange, vaguely threatening but ultimately pathetic creature named Gollum that’s been following them and now offers to guide them to Mordor.

But Gollum is an unsettling critter to have around. Naked save for a diaper-like loincloth, fidgety, skinny but large of hands, feet and skull, with strings of black hair and bulging, haunted blue eyes, Gollum looks like a preternatural Peter Lorre, a permanently scared and worried soul who’s compellingly revealed later on to be a hopeless schizophrenic, one twisted by his previous experience as a Ring bearer. “Acted” initially by Andy Serkis and subsequently reworked into exaggerated humanoid form via a dexterous CGI makeover, Gollum is a startling creation that constitutes one of the film’s major talking points.

All the same, this odd group doesn’t actually get very far in “The Two Towers,” as matters focus more on the heroic efforts of the warriors Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) to help King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill) in his seemingly hopeless defense of Rohan against Saruman’s army of 10,000 specially bred fighting beasts. All things considered, the handsome Aragorn would rather be back with his lady love, Arwen (Liv Tyler), but when duty calls, a man such as he has no choice.

Throughout, the film intercuts among a trio of story strands, the third recounting the strange detour of Frodo’s errant pals Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) into Fangorn Forest, where they are snatched up by an ancient walking-and-talking tree called Treebeard (wonderfully voiced by the busy Rhys-Davies), who takes his own sweet time deciding what to do with the anxious Hobbits.

Without pausing to recap past action, Jackson and his co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair (the latter a new addition to the “Fellowship” trio) pick things up where they left off a year ago, and audiences will at once settle in for the yarn’s continuation in full confidence that there will be no let-down in storytelling sweep and spectacle.

Intrigue is rife in Rohan, where the king has been made into an impotent dodderer by venomous court adviser Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), who’s a spy for Saruman (Christopher Lee). All looks lost until Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who, after a fiery demise has been resurrected in angelic all-white glory, turns up to restore the king to his younger former self. Wormtongue is duly banished, while the king’s lovely niece, Eowyn (Miranda Otto), makes heavy eye contact with Aragorn.

Because of the pressure of momentous events and the lessened need for expository character delineation, the dialogue this time around tends toward the utilitarian and declamatory; with hardly an alteration, the very same words, given a different spin by the likes of John Cleese or Michael Palin, could be quite funny. But the grim mood established by the clouds of war and the muted blues, greens, grays and earth tones of Andrew Lesnie’s grand but mobile cinematography keep the proceedings sober as King Theoden and his people abandon their homes for the presumed safety of a mighty fortress, Helm’s Deep.

After a haunting march across the Dead Marshes, beautifully realized by production designer Grant Major and his team, Frodo, Sam and Gollum are captured by Gondor leader Faramir (David Wenham), which effectively sidelines them for most of the remainder of the picture. Over in the forest, the dawdling Treebeard eventually calls a conference of his branchy brethren; when the ambulatory ancient trees at the last minute decide to take action, it’s quite a sight to see.

But the final half-hour is largely and rightly given over to the battle at Helm’s Deep, an event that never could have been presented as vividly or on such a scale in the pre-CGI era. Jackson stages the logistics with admirable clarity; Saruman’s Uruk-hai soldiers, ferocious hulks that are half-men, half-monsters, gather in such numbers on the plains that death seems certain for everyone inside the heavy stone fort. Heroics abound on the parts of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, with the latter’s bemused reactions in the face of repeated endangerment a continued source of humor. A promised deus ex machina arrives in the form of Gandalf, but while the battle may be won, the war against the occupants of the titular towers, Saruman and Sauron, remains to be pursued a year hence.

At least for non-Tolkien fanatics, the two “Rings” thus far lack that essential bit of magic to transport one to another world and make the leaving difficult; despite the vision, organizational skills and assurance Jackson and his talented team have marshaled on behalf of this sprawling undertaking, there is something slightly laborious and unenchanting about the projects that prevents total surrender to them.

All the same, it’s hard to imagine a much better version of this material onscreen. As before, the exceptional New Zealand locations seem to have been created to order for the trilogy, and the way Tolkien’s descriptions have been physically realized in the sets, costumes, makeup, hairstyles, special effects and the cast is indisputably impressive. And once again, Howard Shore’s vigorous score, seemingly somewhat altered and darkened, and sans the Enya contributions, provides valuable support.

Thesps from “Fellowship” continue ably in the same vein here, and such newcomers as Otto, Hill, Dourif and Serkis add welcome new interest and flavor. Joining the behind-the-scenes crew are new editors Michael Horton and Jabez Olssen.

At 179 minutes, new entry runs just one minute longer than its predecessor.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Wingnut Films production. Produced by Barrie M. Osborne, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson. Executive producers, Mark Ordesky, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Robert Shaye, Michael Lynne. Co-producers, Rick Porras, Jamie Selkirk. Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, Jackson, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Andrew Lesnie; editors, Michael Horton with Jabez Olssen; music, Howard Shore; production designer, Grant Major; art directors, (Peter) Joe Bleakley, Rob Otterside, Phil Ivey, Mark Robins; set decorators, Dan Hennah, Alan Lee; costume designers, Ngila Dickson, Richard Taylor; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), Hammond Peek; supervising sound editors, Ethan Van der Ryn, Michael Hopkins; sound designer, David Farmer; sound co-designer, Van der Ryn; special makeup, creatures, armor and miniatures, Richard Taylor; digital visual effects, Weta Digital Ltd.; visual effects supervisor, Jim Rygiel; makeup, hair design, Peter Owen, Peter King; conceptual designers, Alan Lee, John Howe; assistant director, Carolynne Cunningham; second unit directors, John Mahaffie, Geoff Murphy; stunt coordinator, George Marshall Ruge; casting, John Hubbard, Amy MacLean (U.K.), Victoria Burrows (U.S.), Liz Mullane (New Zealand), Ann Robinson (Australia). Reviewed at the Grove, L.A., Dec. 2, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 179 MIN.

With

Frodo - Elijah Wood Gandalf - Ian McKellen Arwen - Liv Tyler Aragorn - Viggo Mortensen Sam - Sean Astin Galadriel - Cate Blanchett Gimli - John Rhys-Davies Theoden - Bernard Hill Saruman - Christopher Lee Pippin - Billy Boyd Merry - Dominic Monaghan Legolas - Orlando Bloom Elrond - Hugo Weaving Eowyn - Miranda Otto Faramir - David Wenham Wormtongue - Brad Dourif Gollum - Andy Serkis Eomer - Karl Urban Haldir - Craig Parker Voice of Treebeard - John Rhys-Davies

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more