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With: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Bernard Hill, Christopher Lee, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, David Wenham, Brad Dourif, Sala Baker, Sean Bean
Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien
Directed by: Peter Jackson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for epic battle sequences and scary images
Running Time: 179
Date: 12/04/2002

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Towering Achievement

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's a bit of a burden to go on record regarding the second part of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. After all, isn't it just that: a second part? It's not like a sequel for which you can happily bounce down to the multiplex without having seen the first part and expect to know what's going on. Of course, it gets even more complicated than that. We can't really sit through a 9-hour movie all at once, can we? So it makes sense to spread it out a little. But then there's the DVD to take into account. The recently released "Expanded Edition" of The Fellowship of the Ring added some 30 minutes to that section of the film. Can we expect similar "expanded editions" for the other two sections? How long will the whole thing be and what will it be like all at once?

That said, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers surpasses The Fellowship of the Ring, and promises great things for the third part, due next fall, and for the trilogy as a whole. The film opens today in Bay Area theaters.

The Two Towers plays a little like a grand Hollywood battle epic, as films like Gladiator and Pearl Harbor tried and miserably failed to be. Even Braveheart looks small and weak in comparison. Jackson's precision and passion make every second of The Two Towers hum with bravado and excitement. Director Jackson never allows any down time; we never have to wait for something to happen.

Jackson divides The Two Towers up into three interweaving storylines. In the first, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) continue on their quest to Mordor to destroy the ring. The miserable creature Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis) attacks them, but Frodo discovers a bond with him -- they both suffer from ring-lust -- and enlists him to be their guide.

Secondly, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and the archer elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) scour Middle Earth for their other two Hobbit companions -- Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) -- but stumble upon a much bigger problem.

Bad guy Saruman (Christopher Lee) has amassed a 10,000-strong army of evil beasties, and his first stop is the kingdom of Rohan. Even worse, Saruman's flunkie Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) keeps the King of Rohan (Bernard Hill) constrained through the use of mystical forces. They're basically sitting ducks.

Fortunately, reports of Gandalf's (Ian McKellen) death in the last movie were greatly exaggerated. He has now returned, leaving behind "Gandalf the Grey" in favor of "Gandalf the White."

Gandalf easily restores the king to his true self. And with Aragorn's help, the rejuvenated king and his warriors form a small army to help defend their fortress, Helm's Deep, from the advancing horde.

Finally, in the third storyline, our two missing hobbits, Merry and Pippin, have discovered an enchanted forest while fleeing for their lives. A walking, talking tree, Treebeard (voiced by Rhys-Davies, doing double duty), scoops them up and carries them cross-country to a meeting with more trees. At first, the trees are reluctant to join the Rohan war, but a look at the razed, barren landscape -- and all the dead trees left in the evil army's wake -- eventually convinces them.

Aragorn arguably gets more screen time in The Two Towers than any other character. He's the most obvious leader for the king's forces, and he even gets a kind of love triangle to deal with. The king's niece (Miranda Otto) falls in love with him, but Aragorn can't shake his feelings for the lovely elf Arwen (Liv Tyler), hinted at in The Fellowship of the Ring.

But if Aragorn is the movie's hero, Gollum steals more scenes. Gollum represents, without question, the finest CGI work on film to date. The first time we see him, he has a rolling-around, grappling fight with Sam. The live characters even make eye contact with him when speaking to him.

Jackson even manages to have a little fun with Gollum's split personality. His good side is known as Smeagol, who wants to help the hobbits, and his bad side is overcome with ring-lust and is convinced that the hobbits are out to get him.

All these characters eventually shrink in comparison to the oncoming war. The point of the whole movie is still the machine-like assembly and dispatching of Saruman's evil army; Jackson uses it to cast a stomach-knotting shadow over every event in the film. He builds a genuine mixture of dread and excitement. The stomach butterflies nearly overwhelm us.

In fact, many have already claimed The Two Towers as a kind of pro-war propaganda film, which is ridiculous. In The Two Towers, war is a matter of defending your home and not a desperate means of earning re-election points.

When the battle finally comes, it crashes before us with an unbelievable clarity and accuracy for a sequence presented on such a large scale. No battle since Akira Kurosawa's films has been nearly so impressive.

In the end, the best thing about The Two Towers is Jackson's palpable enthusiasm for the whole project. He's clearly just as excited about part two as he was about part one, if not more so. Only this time, he's really buckled down, ready for the serious business of storytelling and glad that the bother of introducing all those characters is over and done with. Indeed, you can almost feel his impatience at having to wait a whole year to show us the rest of his epic.

Despite the fact that The Lord of the Rings is about 1000 times the scope of Jackson's earlier features, it still features the imprint of the mischievous trickster who put so much giddy force into Bad Taste (1987), Dead-Alive (1992) and Heavenly Creatures (1994). It's like what Orson Welles once said about a making movies being like working on the world's most expensive train set. Jackson clearly has enough stamina to play with trains the likes of which no one else has ever seen.

DVD Details (Theatrical Version): By now, everyone knows that if they shell out the 30 bucks for this two-disc set, they're just going to have to junk it next month when the new "Extended" version comes out. True devotees, however, will want both versions just so they can compare the theatrical version to the "director's" version. Sometimes the former can be preferable to the latter. And the excellent The Two Towers certainly holds up to more than one viewing. The DVD set contains lots for fans, notably a preview of The Return of the King and a very nice short film directed by Sean Astin using some of the cast and crew members. This cut runs 179 minutes.

DVD Details (Extended Version): This four-disc set includes the 223-minute cut, plus hoards and hoards of extras.

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