When making a pre-planned trilogy, you would think that guaranteeing a strong opening or a satisfying ending would be the most challenging thing to pull off. However, when running a critical eye over movies that have chosen to make numerous entries back to back, it’s inevitably the middle episode that’s proven to be the problem time and time again due to systemic problems inherent in the story telling structure. What I mean by that is the middle film of a set trilogy has the hurdle of not only being in danger of lacking drama (most of the characters are destined to live due to an existing film to wrap up), but it also lacks the benefit of having a distinct beginning or end and if it makes any bad choices, it will carry over to the third flick, tainting it with suckage even before the CGI has been finished. It happened with the second Pirates Of The Caribbean and it happened The Matrix (two franchises where parts 2 and 3 were lensed back to back) and it’s a notoriously tough problem to avoid – could the Fellowship Of The Ring find a that would lead them around this notorious problem?
The Fellowship is broken with two of their nine members dead thanks to the efforts of a flurry of arrows and a bloody great fire deamon respectively and the surviving members are scattered to the winds leaving the future of Middle-Earth in a state that has never looked so uncertain.
Frodo and Sam have continued on their quest alone as the threat of the powerful One Ring could corrupt anyone they come across in order to thwart their mission to trudge into the land of the enemy and destroy the ring by bunging it into the fires of the volcano from whence it was forged, but as they try to negotiate a labyrinthian passage of rocks they finally cross paths with Gollum, a gangly emaciated wretch who himself once possesed the ring and while he’s obviously still a hopeless junkie for enchanted jewelry, Frodo takes pity on Gollum and an uneasy alliance is formed that the Hobbit hopes will redeem them all.
Meanwhile Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are in pursuit of the hulking Uruk-Hai warriors that killed Boromir and captured the two other Hobbits of their group, Merry and Pippin, but as their chase leads them into the lands of the Rohirim, they get caught up in the problems afflicting the land due to the genocidal actions of the turn-coat sorcerer, Saruman.
As the dark lord Sauron’s plans to eradicate the world of men ramps up exponentially, our separated heroes are trapped between the cruel machinations of the two towers of Isengard and Mordor, but each group manage to find unlikely allies that may hold off the spread of evil for just a little longer. But their greatest hope of all may be the return of one previously thought lost in the shadowy void of the Mines of Moria…
Out of the entire Lord Of The Rings trilogy, The Two Towers has the most work to do. Not only does it have to handle the middle-movie issues I mentioned earlier, but it also has to do justice to the core cast while also introducing vital new additions that will go on to have vital ramifications to the story. It’s a thankless task that’s not made any easier by the fact that events naturally bleed out most of the more overt fantasy elements (aside from the odd talking tree, of course) in favour of us exploring the worlds of men over chilling out in the Shire or spending time with the Elves.
The original cast is thankfully well served with Viggo Mortensen’s Aragon taking more of an overt lead as he gradually leans more into his destiny while Elijah Wood’s Frodo and Sean Austin’s Sam bond further as they slog their way through the worst example of a cross country jaunt in cinema history; and if Legolas and Gimli are reduced slightly to the Tolkien version of buddy cop action pairing, their rivalry in amassing the larger body count ends up snagging the majority of the laughs.
So how do the new faces fare? Thankfully very well due to the legendary blueprint Peter Jackson has to follow with the troubles of the people of Rohan proving to be interesting enough as to divert your attention from the lack of more exotic locales. The adding of Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto and the ubiquitous Karl Urban as the bewitched King Theoden, frustrated shield maiden Éowyn and mountainous Éomer respectively is a boon while the villain quota is boosted by Brad Douriff’s odious lackey, Wormtongue. Elsewhere John Rhys-David pulls Middle-Earth double-duty as Treebeard the Ent (think a far larger Groot who rambles like a senior citizen) and David Wendam does solid work as Boromir’s more sensitive brother, Faramir, but it’s Andy Serkis’ game changing Gollum that steals the show with a masterclass of mo-cap, a split personality and a gurgling purr that instantly pushed the medium of computer generated characters into the next phase.
With all these new faces and character arcs, the movie thankfully manages to juggle all of its balls with a steady hand and is even confident enough to add another in the form of Gandalf’s welcome, but utterly unsurprising resurrection (never mind if you read the book or not, he’s on the sodding poster), but with all these new players on the board, things admittedly become in danger of being too talky with only a stunning coda to the Gandalf/Balrog fight and a raid by orcs astride giant wolves to break up the relentless plot.
Thank heavens then for the magnificent Battle Of Helm’s Deep, the absurdly epic siege that ends the film and that not only proves to be nail bitingly tense, but also rewrote the book on humongous, sprawling medieval battles that’s then followed up by the impressive sight of a horde of Ents kicking seven bells out of the forces of Saruman. It’s the big finish the movie needs after all the character work the filmmakers have dutifully delivered while simultaneously addressing the various themes of environment (Saruman’s pillaging of the forests in the name of industry) and war (the Hobbits are essentially young men shipping out to fight in WWI), and even if it sometimes almost loses its grip on the complex story – at one point the characters literally explain the plot to one another while pointing to a close up of a map – it does a fine job of keeping everything on track and moving smoothly.
It may not be as utterly beguiling as Fellowship Of The Ring and it may not benefit from the payoffs afforded to Return Of The King, but in it’s own way, The Two Towers is the most accomplished movie of the three by basically taking something that could have been low stakes and formless (no major characters die and Middle-Earth’s status quo isn’t massively different by the film’s end) and making it incredibly personal and genuinely riveting.
A middle part of a modern trilogy that doesn’t lead the franchise into a downward spiral? Now you’re Tolkien!