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The Two Towers

The eye-opening thing about watching The Lord of the Rings with other people is discovering just how small the fanboy world is in comparison to the real one. Not everybody knows what's coming next, and worse, that guy next to you? He actually needs subtitles in order to understand what the elves are saying.

So for those who have only the movies as their experience with Middle Earth, the second installment may not have quite as much magical power as the first film did. Though Peter Jackson and company strive mightily, this is a movie stuck between two towering films. The Fellowship of the Rings promised high adventure. Next year's The Return of the King holds a satisfying conclusion. And somewhere in between lies The Two Towers.

Though it faithfully captures the essence of Tolkien's plotting, on screen some of that plot starts to feel a little padded. Elves keep threatening to leave for the Far West. Men argue whether or not to make a stand against Saruman and his Uruk-hai. In their quest to destroy The One Ring, our heroes Frodo and Sam seem to make more side trips than Billy Keane coming straight home from school. And yet for some of us, this movie still rocks.

If I seem to be playing both sides against the middle, it's because I still can't quite make up my mind. Parts of this movie dragged, but will probably still stand up well when seen in the overall context of the Super Tiger Dragon Edition of the complete trilogy. On its own, the film juggles a difficult split narrative without completely losing us.

It opens with an unfamiliar angle on a familiar scene. While the camera pulls back over a spectacular snowy mountain range, the sounds of battle can be heard coming from within it. These are the fabled Mines of Moria, and once again we relive the supposed death of Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) at the claws of the Balrog. Except, like a classic movie serial, we didn't really see everything the first time around.

Frodo (Elijah Wood) wakes from this dream/memory, to find Middle Earth an even colder place than it had been in The Fellowship of the Ring. At least he still has his Sam (Sean Astin), plodding and faithful as ever.

While we await the rebirth of Gandalf, Saruman (Christopher Lee) builds his army and loses another piece of his sanity. It's hard to keep it all together when busy allying yourself with a huge glowing eye, possessing the Rohan King Theoden (Bernard Hill), and trying to keep your whites white while being subsumed in evil.

As for the rest of The Fellowship, they're busy chasing orcs and Uruk-hai across the lands of Rohan. Somewhere in their travels they've settled into roles they didn't quite seem to have in the first film. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) remains stoically heroic, but now seems more aware of his heartthrob status (or director Peter Jackson is - a slow motion shot of Aragorn throwing open the Helm's Deep doors is strictly a little something for the ladies). Legolas (Orlando Bloom) has grown more cynical. Shemp, er, Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) becomes nothing more than comic relief, all bluster and vaguely Scottish accent. One would have thought that Dwarves somehow walked taller than this.

Walking tallest of all is the ent Treebeard, also played by Rhys-Davies. By luck, this strange creature becomes the new protector of errant hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) after they stumble into Fangorn Forest. The oldest living creature in Middle Earth, Treebeard stands for one of Tolkien's chief themes, a not so passive ecological concern. To the special effects house WETA's credit, Treebeard also comes off as one of the most charming characters in the film, as well as the most believably non-human.

Stalking Frodo and Sam, the pitiful near-human Gollum also comes to life through WETA and actor Andy Serkis. With a voice choked off by centuries of self-absorption and ring addiction, and wide expressive eyes only slightly unnaturally larger than Elijah Wood's, Gollum has the only thing coming close to a character arc in the film. Serkis plays the creature as fighting between good and evil within himself, and with voicework alone provides the creepiest and most sympathetic moments in the film.

The other characters don't really have the luxury of debating good and evil. Just as Tolkien intended, those internal battles have already been sorted out. The lines are clear and drawn, and the unabashed black-and-white nature of the material may turn some people off outright.

But Jackson never falls off the edge into hokiness. The Two Towers is earnest filmmaking, with a complete lack of cynicism. Yes, he dawdles a little bit over the romance between Arwyn (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn, and the film could possibly have tightened up a few minutes without it. But let George Lucas take note: if you must have romance in an action epic, this is the way to do it. There's a difference between sincere acting and flat line-reading.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Jackson has assembled some fine actors. Aside from McKellen and Serkis, he brings in the quirky and underrated Brad Dourif as Grima Wormtongue, a quietly lustful servant of Saruman. Few play baleful as well as Dourif, and his presence is welcome. Just don't question why no one in Rohan suspects a royal advisor named Wormtongue.

A few plot points remain muddled, even though on the whole Jackson crams a lot of action into the film. A key matter of Gondorian law is enough to give Faramir (David Wenham), brother of Boromir, a crisis of conscience, but not enough to actually be explained. Just who the humans who side with Saruman are, and why they hate the horsemen of Rohan so much is also never really made clear. (Those who side with Sauron, on the other hand, come from The East, and perhaps unfortunately look very Arabian. Though it will be a tempest in a teapot, I give it a week before this movie starts garnering protests.)

But even wading through all this arcane Tolkien lore, such a movie stands or falls on its action, and The Two Towers has plenty of it. At its heart lies the Battle of Helm's Deep, a near echo of Masada in its feasibility, with the advantage of a good old-fashioned U.S. Calvary film thrown in. Wave after wave of Saruman's armies (by his count, ten thousand inhuman warriors) lay siege to the last stand of Rohan, and we never lose sight of what's happening. It's ugly, it's chaotic, and never less than cool, especially the strangely thrilling sight of Aragorn and Theoden making a charge on horseback through the castle halls.

As a bridge between beginning and end, The Two Towers holds steady. But what I really want for Christmas is to see the whole thing.

What's it worth? $9

Derek McCaw

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