- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2002

The most eagerly awaited movie of this Christmas season probably is "The Two Towers," the second installment of Peter Jackson's three-part adventure spectacle derived from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings."
The movie, which opens today, is engrossing but inconclusive. It is the bridging chapter, and as such lacks the built-in advantages of the beginning and the end. One can detect some chinks in the armor of Mr. Jackson's generalship. Nevertheless, "The Two Towers" does nothing to dampen one's desire to see a triumphant finish next Christmas, when "The Return of the King" completes the saga.
The literary source material is, of course, a dense mythological trilogy about the quest to preserve a medieval civilization called Middle Earth from the ravages of despotic wizards, Sauron and Saruman, who have barbaric armies at their disposal. The two towers are home base for these satanic conspirators.
Visible as only a kind of inflamed, gigantic evil eye, Sauron lurks at the Dark Tower of Baraddur in a forbidding, volcanic region called Mordor. Saruman, in the majestically sinister, white-bearded form of Christopher Lee, resides at the Tower of Orthanc in Isengard. He is a direct threat to a kingdom called Rohan, noted for its warrior-horsemen, and to a forest called Fangorn, a habitat for giant talking trees known as Ents.
The nine members of the fellowship introduced at the outset seemed to have been reduced to seven by the fade-out of the first battling good wizard portrayed by Ian McKellen, is clarified early in "The Two Towers." Fears of his demise while plummeting into an abyss in combat with a monster called Balrog were premature. The battle is picked up and observed to the finish in the new film, giving it an awesomely fantastic and propulsive introductory spectacle.
Gandalf remains a bit distant and spacey until an indispensable reappearance at Helm's Deep, leading a decisive cavalry charge. The seven survivors of the last battle in "Fellowship of the Ring" are split into three widely scattered groups during "The Two Towers." The hobbits Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin) resume their trek toward Mordor, where Frodo needs to destroy the sinister ring in his possession in the fires of Mount Doom. They are joined by a potentially treacherous guide and companion, the emaciated gnome called Gollum, whose lust for the ring has made him quite schizophrenic.
Another pair of hobbits, Dominic Monaghan as Merry and Billy Boyd as Pippin, escape captivity by a loathsome war party of Orcs, later slaughtered by outriders from Rohan. Taking refuge in Fangorn Forest, the fugitives spend the rest of the film perching in the limbs of a ruminative Ent that Tolkien called Treebeard.
The human-elfin-dwarf trio of warriors Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Orlando Bloom as Legolas, and John Rhys-Davies as Gimli begins a fruitless search for Merry and Pippin. The trail leads them to Rohan, where the newcomers help break the evil spell that has immobilized a worthy king named Theoden (Bernard Hill) at his castle in Edoras. The royal household also includes Brad Dourif as a treacherous agent of Saruman named Grima Wormtongue and the lovely Miranda Otto as Theoden's niece Eowyn, who takes a strong liking to Aragorn.
Edoras seems indefensible against an approaching Orc army of 10,000. A fighting remnant of 300, plus women and children, evacuates to the rocky fortress of Helm's Deep and prepares for the onslaught.
This proves better as an overwhelming threat than a realized set piece. Mr. Jackson doesn't get his organic combatants and the digital hordes in perfect sync. The stages of the conflict also grow repetitive as the focus shifts from ramparts to great gate to causeway and as the director interrupts this struggle to keep tabs on the forest hobbits and then Frodo and Sam, who have been diverted to a neighboring embattled kingdom called Gondor while attempting to reach their final destination in Mordor.
Meanwhile, prolonged possession of the ring seems to be subjecting Frodo to alarming mood swings. Gollum's bipolar dementia is indicative of where such swinging will lead.
The best sustained battle sequence in the movie is a swift, breathtaking clash on horseback between Rohan riders, who have loaned mounts to Aragorn and Legolas, and a scouting party of Orcs. There's a fabulous trick shot of Legolas mounting up, so quickly and fluidly that you believe there is something uncanny about those elves.
Aragorn ends up in an abbreviated reprise of Gandalf's cliffhanging disappearance, and although it's resolved in a different way, you become more aware that the devices in the stories are beginning to repeat themselves. Concealment and variation would be easier if the end of the quest were a bit closer to realization.
Still, "The Two Towers" is a whale of an entertainment. To some extent, the leveling off results from the fact that Peter Jackson achieved so many wizardly breakthroughs in the first movie. Some of his flair for the magical and fantastic can be taken for granted now. "Fellowship" was impressive in part because you weren't sure a year ago that any film director would even try to visualize Tolkien's storybook world so richly and vividly. Mr. Jackson isn't afraid of trying to authenticate very strange phenomena, from bottomless hellish pits to forests with ponderous talking trees. He's the right guy for the Tolkien job, even if some miscalculations and breakdowns defy concealment in "The Two Towers."

TITLE: "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"
RATING: PG-13 (Graphic violence in episodes depicting combat in medieval settings; sustained ominous atmosphere and occasional gruesome illustrative details)
CREDITS: Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair and Mr. Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.
RUNNING TIME: 179 minutes

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