Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring was so well-plotted and engaging, that the next two films in the trilogy feel weaker in comparison. Admittedly, The Two Towers is rife with challenges that would task any director.
With the Fellowship now broken, Jackson is required to tell three separate stories. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), led by the sneaky Gollum (Andy Serkis), venture into Mordor on their quest to slam-dunk the One Ring into Mount Doom. Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) attempt to rally the kingdom of Rohan against the growing threat of Sauron. And finally Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) escape from their orc captors and encounter Treebeard the Ent (voiced by John Rhys-Davies), who they hope to turn against Saruman (Christopher Lee) in Isengard. WHOOF!!!
This wouldn't be too bad if Jackson hadn't engaged in some bizarre deviations which actually lengthens the already cumbersome plot. In the original novel, Faramir was always the antitesis of his flawed older brother, but here screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens make him just as horny for the One Ring as Boromir. As a result, we're "treated" to a painful (and rather expensive-looking) detour as Faramir drags the hobbits back to Osgiliath. The first time I saw The Two Towers in the theater this really pissed me off, but mercifully the "Extended Edition" reinstated scenes of Faramir chafing under the unreasonable expectations of his asshole dad. Although the original story would have been better, these flashbacks do make Jackson's choices a lot more palatable.
In fact, if the movie suffers from anything, it's the overuse of flashbacks. For example, Liv's Tyler's Arwen is embedded in the narrative thread of The Two Towers like a glaringly obvious splinter. I know that the original books suffer from a shameful dearth of interesting female characters so it makes sense to artificially inflate Arwen's importance in the film. But the scenes between her and Aragorn, likely omitted from the first film for pacing reasons, have been awkwardly shoe-horned into this central chapter in the form of flashbacks. This makes the film's already choppy narrative feel even more scattershot.
Also, one of my favorite underlying themes from the original novel concerns the Kingdom of Men and how they're forced "grow up" and start fighting their own battles without the assistence of dwarves and elves. I like to think that this was Tolkien's way of noting humanity's movement away from superstition and fear and into an era of enlightenment, self-determination and discovery. Unfortunately, Jackson throws this right out the window by having the friggin' elves intervene during the Battle of Helm's Deep.
But given such a massive undertaking, I think that Jackson gets a helluva lot more right than wrong. For example, Gollum is, without a doubt, the greatest CGI character in cinema history. Having Andy Serkis on set to do live motion capture alongside Elijah Wood and Sean Astin is a technique that I really wish George Lucas had uniformally adopted for his generally Photoshopped Star Wars prequels.
Speaking of our favorite ring couriers, you really get the sense that Sam's insistence in accompanying Frodo at the end of Fellowship is the single most pivotal moment in the entire trilogy. I also think it's great that Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan get their own segment with the Ents, driving home a point once made by a certain diminutive Jedi Master when he famously intoned "Size matters not". At face value, Merry and Pippin seem about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, but they end up having a major impact on the story.
In the human camp, David Wenham is great new addition as Faramir, captain of the Ithilien Rangers. If I didn't know any better I'd say that he was genetically manufactured in a factory specifically designed to produce siblings for Sean Bean. He strikes an intense but honorable note as the family's Black Sheep and its heart-wrenching to watch him experience an epiphany that will alienate him even further from Denethor.
The people of Edoras are also well-represented. Before his triumphant turn as McCoy Mark II in the Star Trek reboot, Karl Urban was both commanding and authoritative as Eomer. Veteran actor Bernard Hill (who also played Captain Smith in Titanic) is equally fantastic as Theoden, literally coming back to life right before our eyes and then rallying his people to war.
Speak of the devil, Brad Dourif is appropriately slimy as the royal ear-poisoner Grima Wormtongue. Finally the angelic Miranda Otto is hypnotic as Eowyn, which makes me wonder why Aragorn is so friggin' obsessed with the sniffly-looking Arwen.
The epic battle at Helm's Deep which culminates the film also ends up being something of a a mixed bag. When Jackson pulls the camera back we get plenty of spectacle but he often frames the hand-to-hand combats in tight close up or, even worse, with inexplicable slow-motion. And although the do-or-die heroics of Mortensen's Aragorn are truly inspiring his efforts are undone somewhat by the goofy, tension-shattering banter between Gimli and Legolas.
The last few frames of the film pretty much sum up the merits and flaws of The Two Towers. Even though his re-appearance is spoiled somewhat by yet another damnable flashback, a certain staff-wielding wizard leads us through a rousing finale. It also gives him the opportunity to pre-sage the saga's finale by re-assuring us that "the battle for Helm's Deep is over. The battle for Middle-Earth is about to begin".
It's almost as if Jackson and his screenwriters are speaking through Gandalf, asking us to stick with them through the clunky bits until we get to the mind-blowing final act.
But, once again, this is a tale for another time...