The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” suffers slightly from being the second story in a trilogy, where the imaginative exposition is behind you and the thrilling conclusion is yet to come.

But the second film is, in many ways, imaginative and thrilling, and though it may turn out to be the least of the three “Lord of the Rings” films, it is still more visceral and engaging than nearly any other action/adventure film this year.

Those who have not seen “The Fellowship of the Ring” — if there is anyone in America who fits that description — shouldn’t bother with this one, as no attempt at a recap is made. Going in unindoctrinated would be akin to showing up at a three-act play after the first intermission. (That is not a criticism; merely an observation.)

It picks up a few days after “Fellowship” left off, with three separate threads to follow. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are heading for Mordor to destroy the titular ring, trailed by the simpering Gollum (voice of Andy Serkis), who was once owner of the ring. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have been abducted by Orcs. Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are searching for Merry and Pippin, but soon have other worries to attend to — specifically, evil Saruman (Christopher Lee), who is planning an all-out war on the world.

Though I realize faithfulness to J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels makes this inevitable, it is the splintering of storylines that, for me, weakens the film. The most attention is paid to Aragorn’s crew, and those characters simply aren’t as interesting or sympathetic as Frodo and his noble, unenviable task. Our hobbit hero, in fact, is relegated to supporting-character status, his screen time reduced to a few “I have the weight of the world on my shoulders” lines and almost nothing else of note. Merry and Pippin, for their part, are practically irrelevant; the film seems to include them merely because, well, it has to. (And, yeah, Treebeard is pretty cool.)

And yet, if the focus on war preparations removes some of the story’s heart, it adds to its brawn, with battle scenes so massive and intense you can practically smell the dead Orcs. And if Frodo and Sam don’t get enough screen time, Sam’s thesis-underlining speech at the end makes up for it: “There is some good in this world,” he says, “and it’s worth fighting for.” (In the field of giving the critic a lump in his throat, this speech is up there with Gandalf’s line from the first film, when Frodo wishes none of this had ever happened: “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”)

Director Peter Jackson, co-writing again with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair, offers much of the same spirit as the first film, with the same unexpected humor and the same keen understanding of what makes the story more than just a three-hour chunk of popcorn escapism.

He has also, with the help of technology that I don’t pretend to understand, given us Gollum — hands-down the most authentic, convincing computer-animated character in movie history. Unlike Jar Jar Binks and Dobby the house elf, Gollum actually seems to have mass and occupy space. There is no suspension of disbelief required. He also has a soul, and, amazingly, pulls off his conflicted arguments with himself as well as any flesh-and-blood actor could. It will seem strange to look at the “Two Towers” row at the Oscars ceremony and not see Gollum there, sitting next to Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen.

Shooting all three films at once was a gamble, but it has paid off. They bear the mark of having been cut from the same cloth, rather than being watered-down, like most sequels. The millions of people who loved last year’s triumph will find just as much to love this time.

A- (2 hrs., 59 min.; PG-13, a lot of violence, though none of it is very graphic or bloody.)