Picking up where 2001's The Fellowship of the Ring left off, The Two Towers continues the cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's literary masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, the epic trilogy that virtually defined the fantasy genre singlehandedly. Set in the mythical realm of Middle-Earth, Tolkien's signature work is the story of hobbit Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy the One Ring, an artifact of unimaginable power that the evil Sauron needs to decisively conquer the world.
The second installment of the trilogy, The Two Towers focuses on the war brewing between the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth (humans and elves, among others) and the forces of the evil wizard Saruman, who has joined with the dark lord Sauron. With an army of 10,000 inhuman soldiers known as the Uruk-hai, Saruman launches an attack on the human kingdom of Rohan.
If you're unfamiliar with Tolkien's stories and think this watered down synopsis is too much to digest, don't worry. The author so completely and totally realized the fictional world of The Lord of the Rings that all the Middle-Earth material he wrote could fill an intimidating number of pages. From extensive history spanning ages to individual languages for all the races, Tolkien chronicled a lifetime of imaginative information like no other writer. What you need to know for this movie can be kept fairly simple, though: the good forces of Rohan are besieged by the evil forces of Saruman while Frodo travels to Mordor, the only place where the One Ring can be destroyed.
With that in mind, here comes a flood of names. The characters who were part of the first movie's Fellowship have been separated, making it necessary for The Two Towers to frequently cut back and forth to follow all their stories. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), human hero Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elf-marksman Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and dwarf-warrior Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) join the Rohirrim in the struggle against the Uruk-hai. Hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) spend their time with a group of tree creatures called Ents to encourage them to join the war against Saruman. And Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his companion Sam (Sean Astin) continue their trek to Mordor guided by Gollum, a sniveling and insane little creature who is still in thrall to the power of the Ring. The first group and their campaign for Rohan are the focus of The Two Towers, with the other two groups being more peripheral.
While The Fellowship of the Ring was a friendly introduction with a good balance of action and story, The Two Towers is more uneven: just about every scene is either far more dreary and boring than those of Fellowship, or far more epic and exciting. There's very little middle ground this time.
On the side of dreary and boring are the wordy politics of men and elves, and the rather lifeless romance between Aragorn and elf-babe Arwen (Liv Tyler), which is more a device of the movie than the novel. The story of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum is also a bit of a yawner, with Frodo constantly fighting against hopelessness and the temptation of the Ring. This admittedly important theme is hammered away so often that it becomes redundant. Also repetitive is Frodo's roundabout journey: after getting all the way to Mordor, he is taken to Gondor, only to have to set out for Mordor again.
On the side of epic and exciting are the elaborate, awe-inspiring battle sequences. The fighting is furious, the carnage is spectacular, and the body count is high. The clash between the armies of good and evil is thrilling, and the assault of the noble Ents upon the tower of Isengard is brutal, unique, and fantastic. Gandalf's duel with the fiery, demonic Balrog--only briefly seen up to this point--is also impressive, and makes for a hell of a starting point for Towers.
As in the The Fellowship of the Ring, fan-favorite Legolas kicks a great deal of ass with mad style. It gets to the point where you have to wonder why the humans are outmatched with the unstoppable archer on their side. The King of Rohan should have just said, "Hey, Legolas, be a sport and take down all 10,000 of those guys outside."
There are numerous variances between the book and film versions of The Two Towers, of course, but most are acceptable and in the best interests of the movie. Gimli is often used for comic relief, while the roles of Arwen and Eowyn--just about the only women to be seen for miles--get expanded. But even when the page and the stage mirror one another, they each have unique traits that make them better equipped for different scenes: generally, the film is more adept at showing action and fighting, while the book makes internal conflicts like Frodo's resistance against the Ring more interesting.
The weakest, most distracting element of this movie is its depiction of Gollum. A cheesy product of computer animation, this cross between Steve Buscemi and a diseased frog alternates between irritating and farcical. The portrayal of his obsessive insanity is inappropriately comical, and he's the only character who was better realized in Ralph Bakshi's unattractive cartoon version of The Lord of the Rings from 1978.
Nevertheless, The Two Towers is a brilliant piece of filmmaking that, like The Fellowship of the Ring, demonstrates the magic movies can weave when imagination is expertly melded with technique. As the second part of one of the most ambitious trilogies in cinematic history, it does not disappoint or falter in its mission to visualize Tolkien's ingenious work.
Rating: 9 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)
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