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Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers ****
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Mortensen, Tyler shine in Two Towers

(Courtesy of The Oakland Tribune)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin. Rated: PG-13.

When, in 1998, New Line Cinema unveiled plans to release three epic feature films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings -- to be filmed simultaneously in 274 days over 15 months -- the studio was, to some degree, betting its very future that Rings fans would embrace director Peter Jackson's take on the trilogy. And though Jackson has taken few liberties with Tolkien's intricate plot, there's no denying that the New Zealand-born director has left his fingerprints on the saga.

Consider 2001s Fellowship of the Ring. Although Jackson made a conscientious, and surprisingly successful, attempt to preserve as much as he could of Tolkien's labyrinthine fantasy while producing a relatively compact, coherent film that would satisfy the initiated and uninitiated alike, it's clear that he had his own vision. If Tolkien placed a benign race of Hobbits at the forefront of his story, with wizards and mortals as an indispensable supporting cast, Jackson prefers to chronicle the heroic deeds of sorcerers and men.

In Fellowship, he devoted plenty of screen time to Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), the young Hobbit who must save the world from the evil forces of the Dark Lord Sauron, but he often seemed more interested in the valiant exploits of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the magical powers of Gandalf the Grey (the peerless Ian McKellen).

Jackson's vision satisfied the Tolkien faithful, and New Line's gamble paid off, as devotees and curious newcomers helped Fellowship gross more than $300 million in the U.S. alone. Just like that, a juggernaut was born.

If box-office receipts are any measure of a movie's spirit, style and sophistication -- a dubious premise at best -- then New Line can look forward to even heftier profits to come. While Fellowship spent 178 minutes establishing key plot points and reintroducing the world to Frodo, Gandalf and the evil Saruman (played with delightful menace by that most enduring of movie villains, Christopher Lee), Jackson's second installment in the trilogy, The Two Towers, is an action-packed tour de force, boasting the most dazzling visual effects since The Matrix and first-rate performances from a cast that's strong from top to bottom.

Tolkien fans should be familiar enough with the story. The fellowship of warriors dedicated to the all-powerful ring and its bearer, Frodo, has disbanded, leaving the wide-eyed Hobbit and his trusted friend Sam (Sean Astin) to fend for themselves -- with the help, later, of Gollum, an impish creature whose obsessive desire from the ring has driven him to the edge of madness and sometimes beyond.

Meanwhile, Frodo's sworn protectors, Aragorn, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), wander the breathtaking New Zealand countryside searching for a pair of missing Hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Along the way, they befriend the endangered people of Rohan and, with a little help from Gandalf, whose wizardly powers have only increased since his apparent demise in Fellowship, help them escape Saruman's evil army of Orcs.

At 179 minutes, Two Towers is virtually the same length as its predecessor, but its pace is quicker, and the action faster and more furious. Fellowship, of course, bore the burden of mapping out Tolkien's Middle-earth, with its complex history and voluminous cast of characters. By contrast, Two Towers adds only a few supporting players -- Brad Dourif, as the aptly named Grima Wormtongue, stands out among the newcomers -- and moves quickly from the table setting of Fellowship into the main course, a visual feast.

While the first two installments of the Rings trilogy rely heavily on special effects, Two Towers looks less artificial than Fellowship, striking a nice balance between dazzling swordplay, digital animation and old-fashioned explosions. Gollum is particularly impressive, an animated character so real-looking that it's easy to forget he's a computer graphic. Elsewhere, the battle sequences are choreographed with precision and clarity, a neat trick considering their epic scope.

Again, Jackson remains faithful to Tolkien's narrative, but his film owes as much to swashbuckling sagas like Braveheart and the original Star Wars as it does to the vivid imagination of the Oxford don. It is darker and more brooding than Tolkien's fantasy, and is often shot in muted tones, as if the evil engulfing Middle-earth manifests itself in a visible pall. Yet Two Towers has humor and good-hearted fun, and moves at a pace that makes it seem to pass in a flash.

Jackson was an interesting choice for this material. Known more for his work on gory horror flicks (Dead-Alive) and on unabashed celebrations of raunch (Meet the Feebles, Bad Taste) than his flare for family-friendly entertainment, he was hardly an obvious candidate to preside over New Line's riskiest project.

And yet he was clearly the man for the job. Two Towers comes soon after the release of another tale of evil sorcerers and noble wizards, director Chris Columbus's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Columbus, who cut his teeth on toothless fare like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire, is nothing if not literal-minded in his by-the-book adaptation of J.K. Rowling's fantasy, but his determination to make a cute film for kids trivializes the story's darker moments.

Jackson doesn't fall into that trap. In Two Towers, he skillfully combines his fondness for wall-to-wall action and spectacular effects with Tolkien's elaborate vision of a fantastic, often dangerous world. The result is the best film of 2002. -- Rossiter Drake

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