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Orc Chops 

The action's much meatier in Jackson's second Rings film

Fantasy is at its best when it ennobles our reality, and at the movies this year no fantastic adventure towers above The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The second installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's delightful yarn is here adapted just as handily as last year's The Fellowship of the Ring, but in a shift from that film's generous pacing and visual novelty -- do recall, its magnitude was fairly revolutionary -- director Peter Jackson has forged the middle of his cinematic trilogy with the immediacy of broadsword steel. It's a wise move. As the grand introductory act has become the year's must-own DVD set, putting the bucolic Shire, New Agey Rivendell and dank Moria behind us in the collective cinematic consciousness, it's time to venture together, largely guideless and against terrible odds, into foreboding new realms.

The story commences with hobbit heroes Sam (Sean Astin, the trilogy's true star) and Frodo (gushy Elijah Wood -- just grin and bear him) abruptly intercepted by the ghoulish Gollum, a sensational animated character (voiced and pantomimed with great flair by Andy Serkis) whose volatile emotions are so poignant that he deserves to stand beside Jack Nicholson in 2002's Best Actor lineup. Meanwhile, the big nasty Uruk-hai orcs of corrupt wizard Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) run around giving everybody hell, including the unhappily abducted hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Scottish Billy Boyd, workin' that cute brogue). Hot on their trail are hunky human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elegant elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and droll dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), who together are two-thirds of every schoolgirl's dream. Within the first fifteen of the film's brisk 179 minutes we've met most significant characters and within 30 virtually all of them.

What remains can be taken as pure spectacle as the screenwriters (Jackson; his life partner, Fran Walsh; their friend Philippa Boyens; and Jackson's frequent collaborator Stephen Sinclair) gleefully cut and paste Tolkien's epic set-pieces, peppering them with what are presumably Kiwi colloquialisms ("Let's put a maggot-hole in your belly," offers an orc). Frodo, Sam and Gollum trudge harrowingly through the Dead Marshes, Merry and Pippin hug a tree (sort of) in Fangorn Forest and the others drop in on the Vikinglike settlement of Edoras, then spend the movie's final third battling Saruman's 10,000 yucky orcs from the fortress of Helm's Deep ... Helm's Deep ... Helm's Deep! -- "It's only a CGI." "Shh!" -- where Jackson and company cut loose with brazen war-mongering on an epic scale.

Because most audiences now grok Frodo's mission -- seemingly more than the blundering little masochist himself -- we're served up a plethora of supporting characters and subplots. With reborn wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) in rustic Rohan we encounter King Théoden (Bernard Hill), whose bold and braless niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and sturdy nephew Eomer (Karl Urban) struggle against the greasy and absurdly ill-appointed royal advisor, Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif, sans eyebrows). Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin are shepherded by tall, ancient, arboreal Treebeard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies, compensating for his dwarf role), and Frodo, Sam and Gollum get all screwed up by Faramir (David Wenham, boring), brother of the first movie's weak-willed Boromir.

It takes a special aura to appear in fantastic film, a daringness to blurt potentially embarrassing lines such as, "This creature is bound to me and I to him!" Although gritty "reality" woos most critics, it's easy to dismiss the Rings cast for doing little more than enduring prolonged close-ups without blinking, but time will bear out their impressive work.

Gollum is simply a masterstroke -- both from Tolkien and Jackson -- a grotesque fulcrum of wickedness and pathos who prompts nervous giggles not just because he's amusing (he loves those fish "raw and wrrrrrriggling!") but because we all know someone like him ... or have even been him ourselves. (Oh, shush -- you have too.)

Another reason The Two Towers will spark intrigue -- and likely divide "serious moviegoers" and "freaks" -- is that it puts out tremendous energy (wanton butchery of countless orcs, evident endangerment of several horses) yet leaves gnawing questions unanswered, such as: What is Aragorn smoking? Does Legolas shit in the woods? Hugo Weaving? Mystifying.

Despite its much-deserved praise, the tale's not perfect. Christopher Lee's presence is limited to a glorified cameo, and he hardly gets to do anything. Lapses in logic abound, from Aragorn's blithe release of the demonic Wormtongue to the director's odd choice to conclude far short of the second book's thrilling wrap-up (perhaps the effects weren't ready). Primary musical themes by composer Howard Shore are made less special by their nearly note-for-note similarity to his work in Gangs of New York. Unfortunate seams. Nonetheless, The Two Towers is the year's greatest adventure, and Jackson's limited but enthusiastic adaptation has made literature literal without killing its soul -- a feat any thinking person is bound to appreciate.

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