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Hobbit Redux 

*The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (PG-13)
New Line Cinema

Allow me to state without equivocation that Peter Jackson's The Two Towers is the best film about hobbits, elves, Orcs and wizards since last year's Fellowship of the Ring.

But seriously, the second installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is upon us. Brace yourself for aerial tracking shots fit for a Middle Earth travelogue. The bipartisan coalition of dwarf, men and elves, fractured at the end of Fellowship, remains disparately united against the evil jeweler Sauron, his wizardly bitch Saruman, and their swarming army of home-cloned orcs. Fans of The Fellowship will not be disappointed as The Two Towers delivers the battle for Helm's Deep, an epic stompfest on par with anything meted out in Braveheart or Apocalypse Now.

When we last left our homoerotic hobbits, Frodo "the ringbearer" Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his lover, I mean "friend" Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin), had just set off toward the no-man's-land of Mordor to destroy the ring of power. Frodo and Sam are soon attacked by ringbearer-turned-ring-junkie Gollum, and after quickly subduing the boney beast, they use him as a guide to Mordor's gates.

The other hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), have in typical Tolkien fashion escaped one captor (Orcs) only to find themselves snagged by another. They spend the bulk of the film rankled in the branches of Treebeard, an astonishing piece of computer-generated vegetation, a creature who deliberates with their lives while belatedly voicing Tolkien's outrage at the industrialization of the English countryside.

Meanwhile, the gang of Aragorn (the chivalrous Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (the boisterous dwarf played with comedic vigor by John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), search for Merry and Pippin. However, they are diverted from their rescue mission by the return of Ian McKellan who, since falling into the Mines of Moria while battling a subterranean fire-beast, has been upgraded from Gandalf the Gray to Gandalf the White.

The Two Towers largely concerns the struggle for the kingdom of Rohan, where King Theoden (Bernard Hill) has been cast under the spell of snaky Grima Wormtounge (Brad Dourif) who is merely a prop for Saruman. King Theoden has turned crusty and comatose, his head limply hanging on his shoulder like the Pope's. When Gandalf releases him from Grima's spell, the king instantly recovers a few decades, and in a deliciously phallic moment gets a mojo refill by holding aloft his neglected sword.

When faced with the news of his son's death and the burgeoning onslaught of Sauran's army, Theoden, like Colin Powell, proves a reluctant warrior. He orders his flock of peasant subjects into the stronghold of Helm's Deep, a mountain fortress considerably swankier than their abandoned hillside outpost.

The Two Towers is really the Gollum show. A former hobbit turned ring slave, the hopping, hissing beast has the voice of Andy Serkis and is the ultimate anti-Yoda. Unlike warrior bores Aragorn, King Theoden the morose, and their band of bearded supplicants, Gollum is truly conflicted. Despite his lizard-turned-septuagenarian appearance, he proves the most human of Middle Earth inhabitants. In his guttural hiss, his two paranoid selves openly debate: whether he serves his new master Frodo or "kills the thieving hobbitsses and takes my precious."

Wood plays Frodo with equal measures of despair and bourgeois Hobbit nobility. Whether he sympathizes with the miscreant Gollum because they are united in ring addiction, or because he sees Gollum's future enmeshed in his own, it's hard to say. It could simply be one more of Sauron's chimeras. As with Fellowship, Frodo is subject to fits of delusion and schizophrenic rage as he comes closer to his dreaded chore of the Mount Doom ring toss. Sam serves to keep him on track, though his humble devotion flirts with a cloying feudal servility.

Jackson does a masterful job of stitching together the separate plots and though the story itself doesn't advance much, it almost sustains its three-hour length. (During the last half-hour, butt and bladder agitate for a speedier conclusion.) The script is undeniably shallow in parts, sacrificing Tolkien's fully realized lore -- the man crafted not just a trilogy, but an entire language! -- to the mind-boggling battle scenes. In addition, the subplots featuring elf vixen Liv Tyler are a dull distraction with the Enya-esque score band-aiding a paucity of substance.

Sadly, the women of Middle Earth are a sorry lot of quivering baby holders and only King Theoden's niece (Miranda Otto) is possessed of the good fortune to not have soot on her face. She serves only to diffuse manly affections by making googly eyes at Aragorn. Nevertheless, Tolkien can be spared the feminist scrutiny for his was the all-male playpen of early 20th century English academia. Jackson's strength in The Two Towers is combining a visual realization of Middle Earth's inhabitants, and utilizing the New Zealand landscapes to instill a sense of pending dread and ephemeral beauty.

Alas, the elves are bailing out on Middle Earth while the men are perpetually flawed (when not being skewered by Orcs) and dwarves are nowhere to be found. But alas, when hobbits still tread their bare feet, there is hope. As Gandalf fortuitously remarks: "The battle of Helm's Deep is over, but the battle for Middle Earth has just begun." Stay tuned for next year's installment -- same Middle Earth time, same Middle Earth channel.

John Dicker

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