Orc Chops

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

It takes a special aura to appear in a fantastic film, a daringness to blurt potentially embarrassing lines such as "This creature is bound to me and I to him!" (spoken convincingly by Wood). While gritty "reality" woos most critics this time of year -- listen as the word "triumph" rings Pavlovian through the air -- 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. Martin Scorsese's got Daniel Day-Lewis spewing overwrought hogwash in a Bugs Bunny voice (in Gangs of New York, out this Friday), and Alexander Payne deftly prompts Jack Nicholson to reveal that Middle America sucks (in About Schmidt, also Friday), but Jackson and his players offer the world a great big dream, requiring no more than a modicum of imagination.

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 his fish "raw and wrrrrrriggling!"), but because we've all known someone like him ... or have even been him ourselves. (Oh, shush -- you have, too.)

Another reason Two Towers will spark intrigue -- and likely divide "serious moviegoers" from "freaks" -- is that it puts out tremendous energy (the wanton butchery of countless orcs, the evident endangerment of several horses) yet leaves many gnawing questions unanswered, such as: What is Aragorn smoking? And Does Legolas shit in the woods? And Hugo Weaving? Mystifying. Although armies and bizarre creatures clamber about all over the place, the real draw is the mix of the weird and familiar. You could run into someone like Gandalf at any art gallery. Glazed-eyed, know-it-all elves like Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Celeborn (Marton Csokas) are a dime a dozen at your local monster-truck rally. And Mordor -- heck, that's just another name for Detroit.

The Second Coming: Sir Ian McKellen returns as 
Pierre Vinet
The Second Coming: Sir Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf.

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. 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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