The Smeagol has landed

Second Lord of the Rings out-muscles the first

Director Peter Jackson doesn't ease us back into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy at the beginning of the second film, The Two Towers. Instead, he hurls us headfirst into the movie screen, as if through the windshield of a crashing car. Towers begins not with a stately summary of the prior film, The Fellowship of the Ring, but by reprising one of its most famous moments and then going on to show the grand pyrotechnics previously kept "off-stage."

Next we cut to intrepid hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), who reflect on their mission to save Middle-Earth by destroying the ring of power in the infernal kingdom of Mordor. Then the diminutive duo takes stock of their food supply. That's Jackson's genius at revitalizing the fantasy genre, by balancing magical, operatic events with the disarmingly simple needs shared by everyone.

The middle chapter of Jackson's Middle-Earth epic, Towers, may have fewer of the little grace notes that led Fellowship to make such an impression on the world, but it flexes even more movie muscle. Remember the marauding cave troll from Fellowship, one of its most impressive, terrifying creations? In Towers we see two similarly sized trolls, and they're just the doormen at Mordor's black gates. In terms of spectacle, Fellowship was just a warm-up act, Jackson and his special effects team of wizardly New Zealanders clearing their throats.

Towers is a full 60 seconds longer than Fellowship, but it sets such a breathless pace and has so little down-time that it feels like a shorter movie. Where its predecessor tracked the progress of the ring itself, Towers moves in three directions. Frodo and Sam try to sneak into Mordor by making an uneasy alliance with the grasping Gollum — called Smeagol by his friends. Fellow hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) escape captivity from the vicious Orc warriors and fall into the clutches of Treebeard, one of the giant Ents, who have plant-like appearances and uncertain allegiances.

Most of our time, though, is spent with Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) as they get drawn into the plight of the kingdom of Rohan, which gives the trilogy its first long look at human affairs in Middle-Earth. But Rohan may not last long, as the feudal kingdom is the first target of treacherous sorcerer Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his legions of orcs.

The Rohan scenes mark Towers' rare missteps. Just as Fellowship's sequence in the sun-drenched Shire looked like an Irish Spring commercial, moments in Rohan's throne-room feel like a 1950s King Arthur movie. Here Jackson shows his occasional tendency to be faithful to a fault to Tolkien's text. The book describes the mysteriously resurrected Gandalf (Ian McKellen) as bathed in white light, and Rohan's spellbound King Theoden (Bernard Hill) as mummified with age, and the film makes these images far too literal. Some of Gandalf and Theoden's big moments feel campy and melodramatic in ways that the first film never did.

In contrast, the filmmaker fares well when he moves off Tolkien's map. Aragorn's star-crossed romance with the elf Arwen (Liv Tyler) is evoked in elegiac dreams and flashbacks that Tolkien never spelled out. As Towers' romantic lead and action hero, Mortensen may be the film's central role, yet the actor gives a self-effacing performance that's very much part of an ensemble, not a look-at-me star turn.

Miranda Otto credibly portrays Theoden's niece Eowyn, who carries a torch for Aragorn, yet Towers has less concern for love than war. The film builds to the battle of Helm's Deep, as 300 humans face an army of 10,000 orcs, and Jackson gives the extended set piece detail worthy of historic re-enactment. The episode provides a feast of pure filmmaking, serving inexorable suspense, high-impact fight choreography, frame-filling staging and precisely the proper amount of comic relief from Rhys-Davies' Gimli, the dwarf.

The emphasis on Helm's Deep sums up the difference between Towers and Fellowship. The first film never strayed far from the ring itself and the notions of temptation and corruption that come with it. Towers has less concern with moral conflicts than mortal combat, making the proceedings far more black and white.

The ring's pernicious influence is embodied in the role of Gollum/Smeagol. Vividly voiced by Andy Serkis, Smeagol proves the film's most compelling presence, and not just because he's a superbly rendered special effect, with knobby fingers, paddle feet and a face like a distorted Peter Lorre. Having held the ring for centuries, Smeagol has the tortured inner life of a junkie in withdrawal and proves a schizophrenic capable of unexpected loyalty and lethal duplicity.

Perhaps Towers lacks the same richness of relationships of the prior picture. Jackson will just have to settle for having made another landmark piece of fantasy that combines classic movie-making technique with envelope-pushing cinematic tricks, and does justice to one of the most beloved tales of the 20th century.

Visionary work like this doesn't come around very often, and the final chapter, The Return of the King, can't get here fast enough. There's 364 days and counting.