Of the three volumes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the second is the most problematic. The Fellowship of the Ring begins on a quiet, personal note in the bucolic Shire, with picnics and fireworks displays, opening up only gradually to a remarkable and dangerous fantasy world. The Return of the King ends the trilogy with cliffhanging heroics set on a spectacular scale. The Two Towers, on the other hand, details a long series of setbacks, betrayals and calamities, none of which can be totally resolved. Like the book, the film version sometimes feels like more work than fun, something to slog through in order to get to the good parts. Fortunately, it has been made with the same skill and zeal as the first entry.

The movie begins on a strident note and almost never lets up, skimming throughout Middle Earth to depict skirmishes and battles among wizards, orcs, humans, elves, hobbits, dwarves and assorted other creatures. After three hours, the story ends pretty much as it started, with the fate of the title's supernatural ring still uncertain, and an all-out war still waiting to erupt. A few new characters arrive, but seem to rush by so hurriedly they don't make much impact. For the most part, it's business as usual. In other words, brisk plotting, no-frills acting, outstanding special effects, and unusually effective pacing.

The bulk of the story concerns the battle between the humans of Rohan and an army of orcs assembled by the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). Once a mighty power, Rohan is a country beset. Led astray by the evil counselor Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), King Theoden (Bernard Hill) has allowed Rohan's defenses to fail. Joining him after a disastrous battle in which they lost track of their hobbit charges are Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), the last of the Fellowship formed to protect the One Ring from Sauron, the Dark Lord who is determined to take over Middle Earth. The people of Rohan and their few allies make their last stand at Helm's Deep, an ancient castle hemmed in by forbidding mountains. When the orcs attack, there is nowhere left to go.

Meanwhile, hobbits Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his friend Sam (Sean Astin) make their way into the heart of Sauron's evil empire, Mordor, in order to destroy the ring. They are led by the wizened Gollum (Andy Serkis, lending voice and movement to a remarkable computer-generated character), once their enemy and now someone who is torn between helping and harming the hobbits. The closer they get to Sauron, the more desperate their plight.

This installment does a good job in conveying Frodo's moral qualms as the ring inexorably corrupts him. It also cements Viggo Mortensen's status as a genuine action hero. Less successful are the Ents, the timeless tree-herders who are such a beloved part of the trilogy. Or bits by cast members like Cate Blanchett, who are squeezed into a plot that doesn't really need them. What The Two Towers does best is whet the appetite for part three, The Return of the King, which will likely be next year's most eagerly anticipated film.

-Daniel Eagan