Here is a movie, like "The Fellowship of the Ring," that's packed to the brim with wonders, chock-full of rip-roaring action, breathtaking landscapes, intoxicating spectacle and full-blooded characters - as heady a draught of fantasy and high adventure as the movies have ever given us. Here are visions to haunt your dreams and action to set your heart pounding: vast bloody battle scenes, whimsical comedy, macabre horrors and shimmering beauties.
Jackson and his fellow script collaborators (including wife and fellow producer Fran Walsh) triumph massively once again - in the translation job of the three that may have initially seemed the most daunting. Tolkien's original "Two Towers," the midsection of his vast mythical tapestry, is divided into two parts (or books) - and the movie collapses them together.
Tolkien's first part followed two quests: the adventures of hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) among Treebeard and the Ents (ancient beings that resemble walking trees) and, simultaneously, the bloody travails of Aragorn and fiery warrior dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) at the court of Helm's Deep and silver-haired Theoden (Bernard Hill), climaxing with the grand, furious battle between the Fellowship's partisans and the vicious orc legions of White Wizard villain Saruman (Christopher Lee). The second tracked hobbit hero Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and sidekick Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) on their ominous trek to Mordor (the dark mountainous fortress where they can destroy the Ring), led by their spindly limbed, devious and hate-wracked guide Gollum (a masterful CG creation voiced by Andy Serkis).
Jackson has woven the three threads tightly together instead of keeping them separate. Intercutting swiftly back and forth, he builds to a crescendo of incredible sustained fury, first with the amazingly vivid and violent Helm's Deep war (a cinematic battle you can easily rank with the Babylonian sequence of "Intolerance" and any of Akira Kurosawa's great film conflagrations), and then, shortly afterward, with Frodo, Sam and the Gollum's suspenseful penetration of Mordor.
"The Two Towers" is most of all a stupendous visual achievement, a great movie fantasy. Dramatic pyrotechnics pay second fiddle to the technical ones, but they're not lacking - though, in fact, so many characters pack the environs of Jackson's vision of Middle Earth, it's hard to pay adequate tribute to them all. The three that stand out are McKellen's Gandalf, who's back from death's brink, actor Serkis' computerized Gollum and John Rhys-Davies, who not only plays dwarf Gimli as a compacted version of the great movie brutes like Victor McLaglen, but also gives a weary-wise voice to the old arboreal sage Treebeard.
C.S. Lewis, in his original remarks on Tolkien's "Two Towers," called it "good beyond hope," and the phrase fits here too. Increasingly, the complete movie "Lord of the Rings" seems a popular film entertainment that can be ranked with the very best ever made. We're used to movies drowning us in prodigal CG effects and non-stop violence, but not in the service of such a grand and engrossing story, such intense concepts or such beguiling characters. The three-limbed tale of "The Two Towers" rides like thunder onscreen and deluges us in marvels, hitting a final fever pitch of rapturous spectacle and excitement.
At the core of "The Lord of the Rings" is a battle between good and evil - inspired, perhaps, by the World War against Hitler's legions that raged around England as Tolkien wrote it, but carried here to such an awesome scale that it has bewitched readers for more than half a century. Moviegoers should be almost as entranced by the teeming, glorious landscapes and dark, bloody battlegrounds of "Two Towers": astonishing midpoint of an epic movie fantasy journey for the ages.
4 stars (out of 4)
"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"
Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; photographed by Andrew Lesnie; edited by Michael Horton, Jabez Olssen; production designed by Grant Major; music by Howard Shore; second unit produced by Barrie M. Osborne, Walsh, Jackson. A New Line Cinema release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 2:59. MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence).
Frodo Baggins.....Elijah Wood
Gandalf the Wizard.....Ian McKellen
Aragorn (Strider).....Viggo Mortensen
Gimli/Voice of Treebeard.....John Rhys-Davies
Saruman the Wizard.....Christopher Lee Gollum.....Andy Serkis