Peter Jackson's epic "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" first unfolds with even greater grandeur than "The Fellowship of the Ring." But the inherent cinematic problems of the J.R.R. Tolkien book - huge battles, a divided story and talking trees - ultimately undercut the mastery of the filmmaking.
For lovers of medieval mayhem - the siege ladders, the catapults, the slashing swords, the deadly arrows, the hacking battle axes, the bristling fields of spears - this second film of the mythical trilogy will present a surfeit of riches. The art of hand-to-hand combat and the assaults and defenses of castle fortresses have rarely enjoyed such spectacular manifestations on film.
Jackson also gives images of massed men on horseback the kind of thrilling cinematic poetry that John Ford brought to his westerns. His camera movements as his questing heroes gaze down from a high hill upon sweeping landscapes impart excitement of their own, lifted by the emotionally rich score of Howard Shore.
But these saga tales are never strong on storytelling, and "The Two Towers" suffers from an even thinner plot than "Fellowship," even as Andrew Lesnie's photography explores New Zealand's natural wonders.
In the second book, Tolkien faced two necessities. With the "Fellowship" split, he tells a story that does not even touch on the central figure of the hobbit Frodo Baggins until more than half of the narrative has unwound. He also has to bridge the beginning, with its introductions of characters and their mysteries and the setting up of the plot, with the ending that arrives in "The Return of the King."
"The Two Towers," which takes its name from the dreaded fastnesses of the evil wizards Sauron and Saruman, presents new heroes and a new villain while also briefly bringing back two women, Arwen and Galadriel, needed to build up the number of female characters sorely missing from the book. In the court of Rohan, the valiant Aragorn, the graceful elf Legolas and the rough-hewn dwarf Gimli encounter the failing King Theoden and his heroic niece and nephew, Éowyn and Éomer, as well as the scheming, treacherous Wormtongue. Deep in the forests, Frodo and the ever loyal and doughty Samwise Gangee encounter the Robin Hood-like men of Gondor, headed by Faramir, who turns out to be the brother of the fellowship's slain Boromir. And the other hobbits find themselves befriended by the most difficult beings to realize on the screen, the towering, arborial ents, shepherds of the trees.
Omitting Frodo from much of the film would not find favor with fans of Elijah Wood Jr., so the screenplay by Fran Walsh intercuts three separate chronicles. The bulk of the story goes to the Strider Aragorn, who emerges as the most powerful warrior in the first film, as played with grim chivalric force by the tangle-tressed, stubble-bearded Viggo Mortensen. Orlando Bloom's boyishly handsome archer elf Legolas Greenleaf emerges an even more appealing figure, and the red-bearded Gimli of John Rhys-Davies provides comic relief as well as hot ferocity. Wood's increasingly shaky Frodo, caught up in the compelling web of the all-powerful Ring, finds support from Sam, more brave and thoughtful than ever as acted by Sean Astin, even as the two must cope with a bizarre and possibly traitorous guide, the big-eyed, skeletal, muttering Gollum. Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin, more developed now as played by Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd, suffer under the vile orcs before coming under the protection of Treebeard and his ents.
It must be said at this point that Gandalf the Gray, the most towering figure in "Fellowship," as mightily played by that superb Shakespearean Ian McKellen, did not really perish in his precipitous fall into a kind of volcano. Now he returns, more potent than ever, as Gandalf the White, lordly upon his great mount Shadowfax. Gandalf comes and goes this time around, but he exerts a strong presence. And again, Christopher Lee makes a deadly adversary as Saruman the White.
The most important part of the story sends the triumvirate of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to Rohan, where the once-proud king has lost his only son and has fallen prey to the cajoling lies of Wormtongue, filled with serpentine duplicity by Brad Dourif, that miscreant for all seasons. Bernard Hill's King Theoden first seems near death, but Gandalf revitalizes him, and Aragorn argues that he must face Saruman and his vast army of orcs, corrupted humans and manufactured killing monsters. Joining the Force are villagers, Miranda Otto's feisty Éowyn (smitten with Aragorn, who pines for Liv Tyler's Arwen) and her brave brother Éomer, filled with knightly virtue by Karl Urban.
The great battleground becomes the impenetrable fastness Helm's Deep. Here is where action lovers can rejoice in the array of war machinery and weaponry of the Dark Ages, complete with splintering battering rams and arcing bolts of fire. Less atavistic souls may tire of the waves of attacks and counterattacks, but it is undeniably spectacular.
Compared with this, the struggles of the little halflings, the hobbits, seem rather paltry. It is, of course, distressing to see the prankish Pippin and Merry subdued by those grotesque and murderous orcs, who are under orders to keep them alive. But after escaping from their bondage, the Rover Boys get to ride on Treebeard (deeply voiced by Rhys-Davies) and talk him into leading his fellow bark faces against the forces of Saruman.
Wood's poor, tormented yet dogged Frodo and Astin's ever-faithful, practical Sam have a trying time dealing with Gollum, a nasty split-personality, digitally generated Thing voiced in a harsh gargle by Andy Serkis. But in time, the hobbits encounter some human company, however dangerous, in the ambiguous Faramir and his rangers of Gondor.
In the end, Frodo undergoes new pain, even as he continues on his mission to Mordor to destroy the ring. But Tolkienians must be warned that the movie does not end with the cliffhanging life-and-death drama of the novel. Perhaps that will open the eagerly awaited third saga.