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Some people would pay to hear actor Ian McKellen read the phone book. I'd pay to see Peter Jackson - who is directing him in the Lord of the Rings trilogy - film anything from the Gilgamesh Epic to Roberts' Rules of Order. In The Two Towers, Jackson paints a world in upheaval and depicts the drastic revamping of its codes and traditions. The result is harrowing and inspiring. As escapist entertainment, it's the movie of the year.
This is the rare picture that evokes and revives the spirit of classics from The Wizard of Oz to The Seven Samurai. It thrives on small moments as well as sweeping set pieces. When a snow-white horse answers the call of a Wizard, or a proud brown stallion nuzzles a fallen warrior back to life, we feel tingles on top of tingles. These poetic bits of storytelling are like glittering punctuation marks in a feature-length spell. And when the proliferating forces of destruction swirl around the fragile remnants of humans, Elves and Dwarfs, our pulses quicken, and our sympathies enlarge to include admiration for tainted champions who redeem themselves in action.
In lesser hands, The Two Towers, the second chapter in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, would merely be a multiple chase film. Jackson makes it a mammoth thing of kinetic beauty. He plummets headlong into a series of moral cliffhangers both suspenseful and suffused with tests of character, ethics and loyalty.
The first movie ended with the sundering of the Fellowship of the Ring. This movie puts the surviving members through a whole new set of hoops. Our hobbit heroes, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), stumble by themselves toward the forbidding realm of Mordor, where they mean to destroy the Ring of Power in the Mountain of Fire. At the same time, the Man Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the Dwarf Gimli (John-Rhys Davies) and the Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) follow the trail of their hobbit friends Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), while orc-goblin hybrids known as Uruk-Hai drag these tiny beings toward the evil Saruman (Christopher Lee).
Saruman, a malignant Wizard who has become the Dark Lord Sauron's partner in apocalypse, builds an Uruk-Hai army 10,000 strong to hurl against his and Sauron's enemies. (The title The Two Towers refers to Saruman's and Sauron's fortresses.) Luckily, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the valiant Wizard last seen tumbling down an abyss in the Mines of Moria with the fiery demon Balrog, re-emerges white-clad and battle-hardened.
Imbued with the spirit and letter of Tolkien - but not enslaved to them - Jackson heightens the book's dramatic issues with visceral tension. He raises soul-rocking questions at each turn. There's no truth to the notion that The Two Towers draws obvious battle lines between good and evil. One root of the tale is every creature's vulnerability to greed, despair or illusions of omnipotence. Another is the weakness of mortal Man: his inability to resist potent temptations or to withstand forces beyond his ken. The brilliance of the adaptation lies in Jackson's skill at making ambivalence and indecision dynamic and intriguing.
Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in his triumphant vision of Gollum, the hobbit who lost his soul to the Ring of Power and now still hungers for his "Precious." Embodied by a galvanizing performer named Andy Serkis, then computerized into big-eyed and emaciated pink-gray form, Gollum slithers through the movie like a literal worm of conscience. Frodo temporarily tames Gollum into servitude - Gollum calls Frodo his Master and reverts to his erstwhile hobbit name, Smeagol. But Frodo's goodhearted protector Sam senses that this grasping, unformed critter cannot be trusted. There's no sharper cinematic rendering of schizophrenia than Serkis' showcase scene here - a conversation between Gollum and Smeagol. Jackson shoots it dead-on as Serkis delineates the dual personalities with crackling virtuosity and psychological insight.
Visually, Gollum is like a fetus you pray will never reach full growth. Dramatically, he catalyzes a queasy comedy. As written, he's both a crude eccentric and a master of passive-aggressive subterfuge. (He's got a touch of Dickens' Uriah Heep to him.) And Serkis supplies Gollum with a sometimes irritating, sometimes tickling voice and enough vestiges of scared-kiddiness that you can understand why Frodo wishes for the best from him. More important, as Frodo becomes more self-aware, he sees that Gollum is a nightmare image of himself: a spectral example of what happens to a hobbit when he falls in love with the Ring.
It's a victory for Jackson and his eloquently tremulous star Wood that Frodo remains this huge film's center of gravity. His scenes attain dizzying lows and highs in quick succession. The movie's pinnacle comes when he feels the full weight of the Ring and voices his pessimism at its destruction. Sam keeps him focused on the quest. "There is good in the world, and it's worth fighting for," he tells Frodo. The breathtaking force of that scene proves the power of simple language when it's voiced with conviction and set in a framework that makes every word count.
The Two Towers is Shakespearean in its range of empathy and fleetness and in its knowledge that "ripeness is all." Among the new allies Gandalf hopes to gather to his side are the Riders of Rohan, renowned for valor and horsemanship. But the King of Rohan, Theoden (Bernard Hill), has succumbed to a corrupt counselor, Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). Does Theoden contain enough shreds of his old self for Gandalf to rouse his integrity? Will Aragorn's appeal to virtue prod the King to action when Uruk-Hai swarm at Rohan's stronghold of defense, Helm's Deep?
Hill turns Theoden into a stymied monarch with a stature comparable to King Lear's. His transformation from beaten man to restored ruler is a fabulous combination of outsize acting and spot-on special effects. No dissolve from Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll was ever as transporting. But even after Theoden expels Grima Wormtongue, Aragorn must persuade the King to fight Saruman. Hill's face is the portrait of a moral quandary. He doesn't want his people ravaged in warfare; he needs convincing that their lives will worsen or end if he surrenders.
The way Jackson and company shape the story, the towering Treebeard, an Ent, or shepherd of forests who himself resembles a tree, offers a comic, stirring counterpoint to Theoden. When he takes Merry and Pippin under his limbs, they attempt to enlist him in the crusade against Saruman. But the rhythms of Ents are wondrous slow. Only when Treebeard sees Saruman's scorched earth does he rally his forces - and when he does, the justice meted out by the Ents has a potency comparable to the Flood in John Huston's The Bible.
Fluid in movement and imagery, full-bodied in its feelings and astonishing in its nuances, The Two Towers engulfs you in a world of lyric uplift and soul-shriveling crises. Lovers like Aragorn and the Elf Arwen (Liv Tyler) share a passion overleaping physical boundaries. Catastrophes yield gargantuan humor as well as bold strokes and rending sacrifice. (Rhys-Davies' Dwarf Gimli becomes as instantly and continuously funny as the Wookie in the first two Star Wars films.)
Paradoxically, the hobbits - these modest "Halflings" - tower above everything. After all, The Lord of the Rings is the hobbit Frodo's odyssey. Nestled in their Shire, he and his mates provide a dream of affability. By the end of The Two Towers, you need to see them safely home.