Written by Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Stephen Sinclair & Frances Walsh, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom
My Advice: Matinee.
The second installment in the adaptation of Tolkien's trilogy has arrived--and everybody is in deep orc manure. Frodo and Sam (Wood and Astin) are still on their way to Mordor, being stalked by the lovable, huggable Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis). Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli (Mortensen, Bloom and John Rhys-Davies) are still on the track of the other two hobbits, Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd), who got snatched up by the Uruk--which are, as you might recall, ostensibly orcs on PCP. All of this to try and stop Saruman (Christopher Lee) from tag-teaming with Sauron to kick the ass of Middle Earth.
Bottom line: this is the most visually stunning film you will see this year. Or probably until the third film comes out the end of next year. The new "steeds" of the Nazgul are pure sleek evil with wings, the armies of Saruman's White Hand (too bad it wasn't a red one, then Nick Cave could have recorded the song for the closing credits) beggar description, and Helms Deep is as badass as you could wish for.
There are problems, though. This film, as I understand it, was written and produced as if it were the middle part of a much longer nine hour film--i.e., the entire trilogy. The problem is not, as many have pointed out, that nothing gets started and nothing gets resolved...because, really, that's bullshit and a copout. If you don't call the climax of Helms Deep a resolution, then you have some serious narrative issues to work out on your own. The trouble is--it's just the middle. It's as if Jackson and company felt that, with the Mondo Edition DVD having come out just shortly before, there was no need to do anything but pickup where the first film left off. Or, you've just gotten back from an intermission from seeing part one. As a result, there's a good half-hour before this film gets started. And let's face it, it's a separate film from the other two--it should have some way of standing on its own. I kept expecting Cate Blanchett to give me a nice ten minute summary of What Has Come Before--then you could launch into the wastes of Mordor and so forth. But no, it just kind of...begins and then lumbers on before finally waking up and getting anything done--a lot like me in the morning.
I wish I could say that was the extent of this film's drawbacks. But there are some more, and they're so patently obvious and easy to fix that they're maddening. There are flashbacks to the continuity of the first film involving the relationship with Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn that completely change how the audience views Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and his daughter, and Aragorn and his elvin love. It almost feels like they decided to make a change between the release of the first film and this one--but how can you retcon when you did the films all at once? Very confusing.
Gimli's character is played for laughs--perpetually. Rather than being a blustering warrior who talks a lot but kicks ass when necessary (as in the first film), he's here reduced to being just a bluster--who gets maybe one occasion to do any serious blade-wielding. His constant humor during Helms Deep is unnecessary--it's a lot like C-3PO in the final battle of Attack of the Clones: distracting as all hell and a huge tension breaker.
Cate Blanchett's narration as Galadriel--you remember, the one I was expecting at the beginning of the film--seems to kick off in the middle instead, and it's hard to tell if it's really narration or some kind of bizarre admonishment to Elrond. And Samwise has a speech towards the end that is so incredibly, terribly on the nose--that it's painful.
Was the first film devoid of cheese? No. It was just so expertly balanced with action, humor, tension, etc. etc. that you didn't care. It all flowed and flowed well. This time around, the film is just a big gorgeous, mind-blowing, breath-taking mess. It delivers on the visuals, but the characters and story all suffer around it. I can only hope that, just as the first film was even better balanced with an additional half-hour of footage on the DVD, perhaps they can re-edit some coherence back into this film when its special edition comes out. Or maybe if I ever sit down and watch them all back to back, then it'll work beautifully in that context. I only wish it had worked better last night in the cinema.
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