Director Peter Jackson, diving gleefully into The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, doesn't waste any time on recap. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is lost and the brave Fellowship is battered, scattered across Middle-earth. The quest to destroy the One Ring continues, and Jackson somehow manages to sustain the sweep and urgency of his earlier triumph. But when, in the bonus materials, the cast and crew keep making promises that the third installment to Jackson's adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy (coming Dec. 17, can't wait! can't wait!) blows the pants off parts 1 and 2, it's hard to feel satisfied with another appetizer, however delicious.
So if ''The Two Towers'' suffers at all from middle-child syndrome, trust that the shot of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) making a sweet float-flip onto his horse makes up for it. As does the growing relationship between a bowed Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his faithful friend Sam (Sean Astin). As does the epic clash of sword and swipe during the battle of Helm's Deep. And oh, the guttural hiss of Gollum (a CGI character brought to marvelous life by Andy Serkis and his wheezy mouth), that's quite a treat too.
The best magic should usually go unexplained, so skip over the behind-the-scenes crap (particularly Astin's irrelevant short film). And the cruel tease for the mama deluxe Special Extended Edition DVD -- four discs, with 43 minutes of new footage! -- coming later this fall will irk anyone who shelled out the $29.95 price this go-around. The only extra that's really worth watching, again and again, is the lengthy preview for ''The Return of the King.''