Dir: Peter Jackson. New Zealand-US. 2002. 179mins.

The second film in Peter Jackson's trilogy of JRR Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings is one of the year's best. Having introduced the elaborate story and its myriad characters in the much-garlanded first film The Fellowship Of The Ring, Jackson is now free to accelerate the pace of the saga and sink his teeth into real adventure. The result is a thrilling, muscular entertainment which powers along intensely towards the climactic third film - due in the world's theatres this time next year.

Box office response will be potent. With the second instalment in the Harry Potter series winding down by the time The Two Towers opens in the US on Dec 18, New Line Cinema and its distribution partners around the world should clean up, coming close to the $860m which the first film generated last Christmas. The home entertainment release of The Fellowship Of The Ring earlier this year should also have sparked up a new audience anxious for part two in addition to die-hard fans. New Line's three-picture strategy may have been a gigantic risk, but it is paying off just as the studio had hoped - turning Jackson's vision into a massive revenue-generating machine, whipping up new consumers as it goes.

The Two Towers proves that, for all his skills of imagination and inventiveness, Jackson is most of all a disciplined cinematic storyteller. While the first picture creaked under the weight of all its exposition, the second one eradicates the tedium of Tolkien's prose in favour of fast-moving action. Awards bodies are unlikely to reward it with the same zeal as they did its predecessor, but there is no director as worthy this year as Jackson who injects The Two Towers with a different, more urgent energy that vibrantly elucidates the book's majestic themes of good versus evil and nature versus industry.

And then there's Gollum - a troubled, deformed hobbit whose own schizophrenic character embodies the struggle between the good of the hobbits with the evil of the ring. Gollum was acted and voiced by UK actor Andy Serkis but then digitally animated using the actor's movements and facial expressions. Whether Serkis is eligible for Oscar consideration or not, his Gollum is as compelling a creation as the combination of man and CGI has yet produced on screen. Sort of ET meets Scooby-Doo, the character is set to become an audience favourite as Yoda did in the second Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back.

As had happened at the end of the first film, the fellowship has been splintered into three groups. Hobbits Frodo (Wood) and Sam (Astin) march on to Mordor alone in their quest to destroy the ring; Aragorn (Mortensen), Legolas (Bloom) and Gimli (Rhys-Davies) roam across Middle Earth in pursuit of a band of Uruk-hai who have abducted the other two hobbits Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd).

Frodo and Sam are immediately attacked by Gollum, an old hobbit formerly known as Smeagol, who has been deformed in body and mind by 500 years in possession of the ring. They overcome Gollum and persuade him to take them to the gates of Mordor, although he is only concerned with being near the ring which he calls his "Precious".

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli meanwhile enter the kingdom of Rohan which is being beseiged by armies of Uruks. The king Theoden (Hill) has been bewitched by Saruman (Lee) and his rule is being overtaken by his evil advisor Wormtongue (Dourif); with the help of a resurrected Gandalf, now The White (McKellen), the three eject Wormtongue and reinstate Theoden, who decides that he and his people should take refuge at the country's fortress Helm's Deep. Aragorn meanwhile takes a fancy to Theoden's niece Eowyn (Otto) and his elf love Arwen (Tyler) takes the opportunity to leave him and join the Elvish exodus to the land of the immortals.

Merry and Pippin escape their captors and flee into Fangorn Forest where they are befriended by an all-talking, all-walking tree called Treebeard (also voiced by Rhys-Davies). The three-hour film culminates in a stupendous battle at Helm's Deep as the men of Rohan attempt to fend off an army of Uruks. Epic, vivid and violent, the battle is also prolonged and bloody and could prove boring to those who weary of relentless on-screen combat.

The production is, of course, sumptuous, and the effects seamless; a new song called Gollum's Song written by Howard Shore and co-screenwriter/co-producer Fran Walsh accompanies the end credits with haunting vocals by Emiliana Torrini.

Prod cos: Wingnut Films

US dist: New Line Cinema

Int'l sales: New Line Int'l
Exec prods:
Michael Lynne, Mark Ordesky, Robert Shaye, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein
Peter Jackson, Barrie M Osborne, Fran Walsh

Scr: Jackson, Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, based on the novels by JRR Tolkien

Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie

Prod des: Grant Major

Ed: Michael Horton

Music: Howard Shore

Main cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Christopher Lee, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, Brad Dourif, Liv Tyler, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving