[Screen It]

(2002) (Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen) (PG-13)

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Action/Fantasy: Various beings of Middle Earth battle an evil wizard's forces as they continue on their quest to transport a powerful and dangerous ring to its place of origin so that it can be destroyed.
When we last saw the Fellowship of the Ring, one of its members was dead, another - the wizard Gandalf (IAN McKELLEN) - seemingly fell to his death saving the others, and the rest had split up into various groups.

The bearer of the Ring, Frodo Baggins (ELIJAH WOOD) is still attempting to make his way to Mordor with his friend and fellow Hobbit, Sam (SEAN ASTIN), where they plan on destroying the ring once and for all. They're soon accompanied by Gollum (voice of ANDY SERKIS), an emaciated little creature who once possessed the ring. Suffering from a split personality disorder, he offers to help lead them to Mordor, but his evil side apparently has different plans. They eventually run into Faramir (DAVID WENHAM), the brother of a slain member of the Fellowship, while on their way.

Then there's Merry (DOMINIC MONAGHAN) and Pippin (BILLY BOYD), other hobbits who were captured by the forces commanded by evil wizard Saruman (CHRISTOPHER LEE) who still plots on ruling Middle Earth and is building an army of monstrous Uruks to assist him. The hobbits eventually escape, but soon find themselves under the wary eye of Treebeard (voice of JOHN RHYS-DAVIES), an ancient and gargantuan tree-shepherd who wonders if they work for Saruman and are responsible for the heavy deforestation that's occurring.

Meanwhile, human Aragorn (VIGGO MORTENSEN), elf Legolas (ORLANDO BLOOM) and dwarf Gimli (JOHN RHYS-DAVIES) are on their trail, hoping to save the hobbits. They eventually make their way into the Kingdom of Rohan where King Theoden (BERNARD HILL) has been put under a spell by Saruman and is controlled by his court advisor, Wormtongue (BRAD DOURIF).

With the king's son dead, his niece and nephew, Eowyn (MIRANDA OTTO) and Eomer (KARL URBAN), now doubt the king's abilities, particularly with Saruman's forces closing in. Once the King is freed from his spell, things improve and they head off for the cliff fortress at Helm's Deep where they hope to make a stand against the approaching hordes. Eowyn sees much in Aragorn, but he still longs for Arwen (LIV TYLER), his elf lover, who must make a decision about whether to leave with the rest of the departing elves, or stay with him and face his mortality.

With Saruman's massive forces making their way through the land and toward the fortress, the various groups continue on their quest to defeat the evil wizard and eventually return the Ring to its point of origin where it can be destroyed once and for all.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
I'll admit that I was apparently one of a handful of movie reviewers who weren't completely gaga and/or blown away by director Peter Jackson's first entry in the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" series. While it had some terrific individual sequences and moments, the film also possessed an episodic feel once the exposition was completed and as everyone traveled from one battle sequence to the next.

Many critics and viewers alike mistakenly equated all of the "Sound of Music" style sweeping vista shots over mountains as well as the cast of thousands scenes as grand filmmaking in the old school style. They also overlooked the fact that the "Fellowship of the Ring" was essentially just a big and sprawling teaser for the next installment and that it ended midstream, without any sort of climatic closure for that "chapter" of the saga.

Having never read Tolkien's work - I still stand by the reviewing principle that one shouldn't have to be familiar with the source material to appreciate what's offered (if that's the case, the filmmaker has failed in his or her effort no matter the rabid fan base as is the case here) - I worried that the middle film, "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," would come off the same way in that regard.

After all, that's what various readers told me to expect. Being the middle film, it's obviously also a given that it has to tie the other parts together. (For first time viewers, there's no recap from the first film, so they'll likely be in the dark about what is occurring)

While this film does contain some of the same problems as the first, I'm happy to report that Jackson ("The Frighteners," "Heavenly Creatures") and returning screenwriters Fran Walsh ("The Frighteners," "Heavenly Creatures") and Philippa Boyens (following up her debut on the first film) along with Stephen Sinclair ("The Frighteners," "Heavenly Creatures") have avoided the "left in the lurch" feeling that tainted the end of the first work.

It does set the stage for the upcoming "The Return of the King," but this time around the story concludes with an often fantastic battle sequence. Not only does it provide closure for this chapter, but it's also rather epic in nature and mostly quite engaging to behold.

I say mostly because Jackson and company couldn't leave well enough alone and do fumble a bit at times in presenting the battle for Helm's Deep sequence. In it, thousands upon thousands of costumed and computer-generated creatures attack a fortress like an unrelenting storm of army ants.

While the various related moments are often amazing to watch, the film lacks the necessary gripping intensity to make it burst off the screen like it should. One need only compare it to the similar, but smaller scale attack sequence in James Cameron's "Aliens" to note the lack of full urgency.

Perhaps sensing that during shooting or in post-production, Jackson repeatedly inserts shots of cowering women and children, all in an effort to make us care about them rather than just mindlessly revel in the spectacle. However, since we don't know any of those miscellaneous characters, the effect is muted.

Jackson also makes the mistake of cutting away from the sequence to update the viewer on the progress of the other characters in the film who aren't at that battle locale. While that makes sense from an inclusion standpoint, it's not until those other stories pick up in intensity that the main sequence's momentum isn't squandered with every cutaway. To prove the point, imagine if Spielberg had repeatedly cut away from the Normandy invasion sequence in "Saving Private Ryan" to show us what Ryan was doing at the same time, far away from the carnage.

Other problems include not one but two uses of the old backed-into-a-corner deus ex machina elements; some laughably bad dialogue that's supposed to be dramatically powerful but instead is horribly stilted; the fact that the attacking hordes often border on looking like extras in goofy monster costumes and makeup; and that the villains are barely personified.

That last one is an underlying fault with the overall film in that there's no depth to the villains or the resultant conflict. Beyond the costumed ones, Christopher Lee ("Sleepy Hollow," "Dracula") returns as the central bad guy, but his time is limited and there are no interesting shades of gray at play here. Instead, everything is straightforward black and white.

In fact, the most interesting and engaging characters are the computer-generated ones. One, voiced by John Rhys-Davies ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Great White Hype") who also plays Gimli, the gruff dwarf, is an Ent or tree-shepherd. He and his fellow towering and ancient beings are some fun (and funny) cinematic creations.

The best in terms of animation and character, however, is that of Gollum. Voiced by Andy Serkis ("Topsy-Turvy," "Career Girls") and modeled after his movement in a motion control suit, the character is nearly lifelike in appearance and any quibbles one may have with that are soon overridden by his psychological nature.

You see, he's not your everyday Middle Earth denizen. Instead, he's an emaciated little fellow who's possessed by both the titular ring and a nasty case of split personality disorder. Whether referring to himself in the plural or constantly slobbering out the words "my precious" regarding the ring he once possessed, he's the most "human" character present who isn't human after all.

For those who favor their characters of the flesh and blood variety, most of the original cast returns with Ian McKellen ("X-Men," "Gods and Monsters") and Viggo Mortensen ("28 Days," "A Perfect Murder"), delivering the most engaging performances, while Elijah Wood ("Deep Impact," "The Ice Storm") is given even less to do this time around beyond looking like he's suffering from some painful constipation.

New characters include those played by the likes of Bernard Hill ("Titanic," "True Crime"), Miranda Otto ("What Lies Beneath," "Human Nature") and David Wenham ("The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course," "The Boys"), but neither they nor those they play add a great deal from a thespian standpoint. The same holds true for the bit parts played by Liv Tyler ("One Night at McCool's," "Dr. T & The Women") and especially Cate Blanchett ("Heaven," "The Shipping News"). Both easily could have been removed to trim the nearly three hour running time without harming the story.

With superb technical work (save for one bad-looking facial transformation effect) and some terrific individual sequences and fun computer-generated characters, I found the film to be a tad better and more entertaining than the original. Yet, with its various flaws, it's certainly not the cinematic masterpiece most everyone will probably proclaim. "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed December 2, 2002 / Posted December 18, 2002

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