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The director Peter Jackson’s huge devotion to the soul of J. R. R. Tolkien’s ”Lord of the Rings” trilogy manifests itself in a gripping, intense fashion for the second of the film adaptations, ”The Two Towers.” It may be the first sequel that does not bother to continue the huge plot elements of its predecessor instantly; the plan is to just drop us right into the action.
Even for those deeply immersed in the material, this stratagem creates a few moments of apprehension — the same disconcerted quality that the hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are experiencing on their quest; this mission started in ”The Fellowship of the Ring” when Frodo was entrusted with the ring that gives its owner great powers and, incidentally, begins the end of life in Middle Earth, as was implied in the first ”Ring” film, ”The Fellowship of the Ring.”
Never has a picture so immensely been a product of a director’s respect for its original material. Mr. Jackson uses all his talents in the service of that reverence, creating a rare perfect mating of filmmaker and material. Mr. Jackson’s plan in this gorgeously considered epic is to give audiences the same feeling of confusion that his characters are experiencing. By doing this he simultaneously answers those who complained that too much of the previous ”Rings” was about setup.
A brief recap of a climactic battle between the friendly wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a fire demon — one of many climactic battles from ”The Fellowship of the Ring” — is shown near the start. But this scene is used to set ”The Two Towers” in motion. It is a daring gambit to have viewers enter a movie bearing such complex preceding action with so little information. Although the first movir took in enough money to jump-start the flagging United States economy single-handedly, Mr. Jackson does not appear to understand that there are folks who haven’t absorbed the ”Rings” chronology into the entirety of their beings. And there may even be people out there who haven’t watched ”The Fellowship of the Ring” but will be lured into theaters for ”Towers” by all the note that ”The Fellowship of the Ring” attracted. Such moviegoers may feel left out, puzzled and unable to keep up.
With the narrative of ”Rings,” Tolkien was testing determination, loyalty and, at last, faith, finding innumerable ways to serve up the concept of purity of heart, as found in Matthew 5:8 and in Kierkegaard, whose contention was that purity of heart was the ability to will one thing into being. The pursuit of purity is at the center of ”The Two Towers”.
As for our hero, Frodo, whose journey is to purge the forces of threatening evil from Middle Earth, purity is shown by combating the temptation to wear the ring and be consumed by its corrupting power. He gets a taste of what the future might be like when he and Sam meet Gollum, a hobbit who was once seduced by the ring. He is now an emotional and physical shambles; emaciated and slunk into a perpetual crouch, Gollum’s translucent, waxy skin is a membrane that just barely contains his insides.
Gollum is divided within himself; he is an infantilized wreck who wants to please and befriend the hobbits. But he is also a hissing, angry child-man whose paranoia helps keeping him breathing, and planning. Gollum is a computer-generated creation and as fully realized a character as can be found in The Two Towers — perhaps the most fully realized. (He has been dropped into the movie more effectively than George Lucas crammed Jar Jar Binks into his recent ”Star Wars” addenda.) With the voice of Andy Serkis, whose movements were also copied by the animators, Gollum is torn by his nature, and Mr. Jackson allows him to be conflicted in a way none of the other characters in the film are.
This is partially because ”The Two Towers” is more or less a bridge to the finale of the ”Rings” trilogy due a year from now, though this picture is one of the most accomplished holding actions ever.
Thus, much of the flow of ”The Two Towers” is dictated by the information that has to be spared for the next movie. Mr. Jackson compensates for that by inflating the warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) into an even more assured, reflexive action hero. He helps a bewitched king (Bernard Hill) defend his castle against the endless, possessed armies of the villainous magician Saruman (Christopher Lee), the foe responsible for the fate of Gandalf. In his flowing white gowns and beard, Mr. Lee’s warlock is a force to be reckoned with because he alone has a voice as commanding as Mr. McKellen’s.
In sheer action mechanics, Mr. Jackson’s accomplishments in ”The Two Towers” are even more captivating than what he managed to do the first time around; he has given the martial srquences of this sequel a completely different thrust. His engrossing action style is compelling and dramatic; when the likes of Saruman’s army crash into the walls of the king’s castle, we could be watching Orson Welles’s ”Chimes at Midnight” as directed by George A. Romero — Shakespearean-level bloodshed and loss as an exploitation film. The exultant creepiness of horror movie is Mr. Jackson’s instinctive moviemaking style. He exaggerates it here in epic terms, and the grandeur is absolutely overwhelming — one sequence of Saruman’s creatures flinging themselves at the castle is shown as an overhead shot, with their shields moving like the wings of an extraordinary lyric and deadly insect.
Mr. Jackson’s mastery of craft in some aspects is so compelling that the flaws are more noticeable than in the first movie. The little-boy allure of the storytelling in ”The Two Towers” is sure to evoke the same reaction that it did in ”Fellowship.” ”The Two Towers” is like a family-oriented E-rated video game, with no emotional complications other than saving the day. Women have so little things to do here that they act almost as plot-device flight attendants, offering a trough of Diet Coke to refresh the geek-magnet tale. (It is a lapse in Tolkien’s work that Mr. Jackson has not found a way to correct, even with the major reappearances of Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett from the first movie.)
Mr. McKellen is a marginal presence this time around, which is unfortunate because he is needed for ballast; ”Rings” is such a kids’ fantasy that a daddy figure is required. He is the father who calms his charges under the spell of Tolkien’s nightmarish threats. But he does get one — only one — whooping chance to do so in ”The Two Towers”.
The most major achievement of ”The Two Towers” is that at its core it is a transition movie that lasts almost three hours and holds the audiences’ attention. Because ”The Two Towers,” which opens worldwide today, has to keep so much story in reserve for the last installment, the movie falls short on emotional involvement. Still, Mr. Jackson rises so willingly to the challenges here that I can’t wait to see his next film – which is the one after the ”Ring” cycle ends.