by Ed Symkus

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the third installment of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, is set for a release date of December 17, 2003. For anyone who goes to see The Two Towers, it's going to be a long wait. The superb second part of the grand tale about the inhabitants, battles and romances of Middle-earth picks up right where last year's The Fellowship of the Ring left off. Two Hobbits -- Frodo and Sam -- have continued on a mission to the dreaded land of Mordor; two others -- Merry and Pippin -- are held captive by a band of evil Orcs; and a mismatched set of human, elf and dwarf -- Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli -- are hot on the trail to rescue Merry and Pippin.

Actually, the film starts with a big bang -- a revisiting of the circumstances around the demise of Gandalf the Grey in the first film, now shown from a whole different, exhilarating point of view. And though there are a few slow pockets in the film, they're necessary in order to catch up on some character background. Also, it's a chance to let viewers soak in the splendor of the Middle-earth (make that New Zealand) landscape. Savor such moments, as there are very few instances in the three hours where either the story or anyone watching it is allowed to take much of a breath.

A quick note of advice for those who didn't see the first film: Rent a copy -- heresy, really, since this is such a big screen treat -- before seeing this one. There are so many references made to earlier events, it would all just make a lot more sense to know what went on before.

Of the new characters met this time, the most important is Gollum -- a former Hobbit named Smeagol, turned hideous in body and mind due to his long-ago brush with the malevolent ring of the title -- who was seen briefly in Fellowship. The character is an amazing CGI creation, presented as a sort of E.T. gone bad. Whatever he might be, he's an original, a creature to feel for or to loathe, depending on which side of his split personality is speaking.

Meanwhile, a sprawling story is shaping up that involves everyone mentioned above, and many more. Brad Dourif comes onboard as the nasty, well-spoken Grima Wormtongue. Bernard Hill is introduced as the initially beleaguered Theoden, King of Rohan. Christopher Lee is back as the villainous Saruman the White. And Ian McKellen, through some sort of mystical explanation, returns in a new guise, now a much flashier dresser as Gandalf the White.

Although Frodo (Elijah Wood) is still at the center of the film's story, much more time is spent away from him due to the structure of it all. There are many more separate stories going on at the same time, each of them integral (even if there's a bit too much of Merry and Pippin being carried through the forest by gigantic, walking, talking tree people). The only characters given short shrift are the women. Liv Tyler has but a few minutes onscreen that reveal something about her relationship with Aragorn, and Cate Blanchett isn't much more than a narrator with a very short appearance. Only Miranda Otto, as Eowyn, who also has eyes for Aragorn, has decent screen time, but even her character isn't given enough explanation.

But despite the strong male characters, a good deal of the film is more about the events surrounding the people and creatures in it. There are battles, battles and more battles -- all of epic proportions. One is a ferocious fight between men on horses and Orcs on terrifying bear-like things. Another is preceded by the visual spectacle of hordes of helmeted bad guys -- a line in the script mentions tens of thousands -- with long, sharp spears at night in the rain, headed toward the castle where some of our heroes are holed up.

This is a dark and frightening film, definitely not for very young audiences due to its high content of violence and downright scary creatures. Yet it's also filled with magic and wonder, and even manages to provide some comic relief, mostly from Gimli and Gollum, although at key moments he and his facial expressions are absolutely chilling.

Much like the first film, there's also a strong message about our relationship with nature and the importance of conservation, made more poignant in that it's delivered by a talking tree. But unlike the first film, which featured both uncertainty and hope at the end, this one ends on a clear-cut note of foreboding. See this soon -- and then let the countdown to Part Three begin.

Bloomsday 2020 @ Spokane

Through Sept. 27
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