"Two" much: Three hours of Gollum gets old

No way should you begin your journey to Middle Earth with The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. To follow the story, you need more than a passing familiarity with The Fellowship of the Ring, because Part Two picks up from there without recap or exposition.

It's another long sit– three more hours– that won't be long enough for the thousands of Ringworms who ran to buy the DVD of Fellowship for the extra half-hour of material.

Ironically some of the series' biggest fans, who know every detail, every character, every country, every army, every creature in Middle Earth, can't pass a test on real history, geography, or biology. It just shows there's something lacking in our educational system.

Unlike most sequels, The Two Towers has a rhythm of its own. While continuing the same story with many of the same characters, it's not a clone of the first part. There's far less of Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who opens the film in a dream sequence to keep from being left out completely, and far more of Gollum (Andy Serkis), whom I seem to be alone in considering the Jar Jar Binks of the series. To me he's obnoxious, not (his favorite word) precious, and his many scenes are painful to sit through.

At the end of Part One, the eight surviving members of the Fellowship of the Ring had gone off in four different directions. They maintain this split through most of Part Two, except for Gandalf's occasionally crossing paths with Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), the dwarf who provides most of the comic relief.

Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his sidekick/gardener Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) are still trying to get the One Ring to Mount Doom, where it can be destroyed. Gollum attacks them, trying to get the Ring for his own purposes, but is subdued and becomes their not-entirely-trustworthy guide. Sam remains devoted to the Hobbit he calls "Mr. Frodo," obviously being into the whole master-servant thing.

The other two hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), maintain a very peripheral status. They climb a tree that comes to life as Treebeard and hitch a ride in his branches. They chit-chat along the way to they're not sure where, and Treebeard does some environmental whining in the booming, James Earl Jones-ish voice of John Rhys-Davies.

Gandalf rides around on Shawdowfax, "the lord of all horses," alternating between gray and white and periodically saving the day. Saruman (Christopher Lee), the puppet of Sauron, is making his big moves to wipe out humanity, and our remaining heroes wind up in the middle of this action.

Saruman's Orc army attacks the peasants of Rohan, whose king, Theoden (Bernard Hill), is in Saruman's thrall, thanks to the machinations of the king's adviser, Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). Wormtongue banishes Theoden's loyal nephew, Eomer (Karl Urban), and puts moves on Eomer's sister, Eowyn (Miranda Otto).

Eowyn's smile gives Aragorn flashbacks to his brief but intense romance with the elf Arwen (Liv Tyler), whose father (Hugo Weaving) is still opposed to their union. Aragorn and Eowyn engage in a bit of a mock swordfight, somewhat like the one in The Mask of Zorro, only not as sexy.

The Two Towers is hardly a chick flick, but women get a little more screen time than they did in Part One– except for Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), who makes a gratuitous appearance for about two minutes, most of it in voiceover.

Aware of Saruman's approaching army, Theoden leads his people to the relative safety of the fortress at Helms Deep. Saruman assembles a bigger, badder army to attack the fortress in the film's longest battle sequence. Afterward Gandalf announces, "The Battle for Helms Deep is over. The battle for Middle Earth is about to begin." In other words, come back next year.

Rather than the simple progression of Fellowship from one spectacular set piece to another, writer-director Peter Jackson takes advantage of his multiple story lines to cut frequently from one to another. Sometimes this happens at the end of an episode, and sometimes it creates a cliffhanger in the middle of one. Having so much going on at once makes things harder for the casual viewer to follow, but the true aficionado will say "Bring it on!" and hope for more complexity on the DVD.

There aren't as many creatures in The Two Towers (unless you count ugly men with bad teeth), but the walking, talking trees are a cool addition. There's not as much playing with relative sizes between characters, but that doesn't mean you'll be shortchanged on special effects. Almost every shot appears to have been assembled in a computer.

No less a cinematic achievement than The Fellowship of the Ring, although more annoying because of Gollum, The Two Towers proves again that this series is out to give you, if anything, too much for your money.