Directed by Peter Jackson, starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Bernard Hill, Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Brad Dourif, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee

"Bigger, better, faster, more". The lifeblood of the movie industry but which blockbusters really live up to that quartet? How often do stars' salaries, flashier but still lame effects, pared-down scenes and the guarantee that no matter how much of a duffer it is, there'll be a sequel, triumph over imagination, plot, pacing and the hunger to see a film over and over? Think about it for a minute and you'll remember plenty of times you've been let down: dud acting, crap endings, tacky CGI in the middle and the knowledge that you'll buy into the hype next year.

Now put such cynicism out of your head completely because we're in the company of Peter Jackson. Having given the world the best early Christmas present last year with 'The Fellowship of the Ring', he's now gone and done it again, beating himself at the game he rewrote the rules for and honouring the highest qualities of that four-word maxim.

Picking up at exactly the moment we left the last adventure, our heroes are now split into three groups. Frodo and Sam (Wood and Astin) are continuing their Ring-destroying quest towards Mordor, while the human Aragorn (Mortensen), the elf Legolas (Bloom) and dwarf Gimli (Rhys-Davies) still search for their hobbit comrades Pippin and Merry (Monaghan and Boyd), now prisoners of Saruman's (Lee) army of darkness.

With their paths divided but fates still entwined, each group encounters someone or something offering hope, danger and a challenge of trust. For Frodo and Sam, it's Gollum (voice and movements by Serkis), the Ring-worshipping wreck who offers to lead them to Mordor. For the warrior trio its Theoden (Hill), the King of Rohan whose land is being ravaged but dithers on making a stand. And for Merry and Pippin its Treebeard (voiced by Rhys-Davies), the shepherd sage of the Fangorn Forest who just might get around to helping them.

Revealing any more means stealing some of the magic and signposting the journey Jackson has mapped out. But be warned: from the start it's far scarier than the one you took before. There's a darkness coursing through 'The Two Towers' which makes those idyllic times in the Shire seem like another life. In this one, the wraiths are airborne, Saruman's recruitment campaign has gone into overdrive, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are among a handful who must face 10,000 Uruks and, most ominously for the next instalment, Frodo is weakening under the power of the Ring...

To begin chronicling Jackson's achievements in leaving you gasping would take longer than the running time of the finished film. There's his - and Serkis' - Gollum, the most seamless union of character and computer ever witnessed onscreen. The way he keeps three storylines spinning simultaneously, never losing tempo and leaving you wanting more of each. His ability to bring new creatures and wonders into view but still make sure you don't lose sight of the people at the centre. The heightened sense of destiny, sacrifice and loss which are at the film's core. And finally Helm's Deep, a climactic battle so in-your-face and genre annihilating that by the time it kicks off, you'll wish you had brought a helmet and shield along to the cinema too.

And then it's all over, all too soon. With two films to choose from the arguments can now truly rage on which is the best and should make the countdown to the DVD release and third all the shorter. Some will say there was a need for further time with certain characters here (McKellen's Gandalf and Tyler's Arwen in particular) or that Pippin and Merry's act of courage should've been the equal of what goes on at Helm's Deep. But for thrills and action it's hard to disagree 'That The Towers' is the perfect foil for the wide-eyed awe and story setting qualities of its predecessor.

There was bemusement and anger last March when Peter Jackson lost out on the Best Director and Picture awards at the Oscars. If the same thing happens this time 'round, don't be surprised to see riots.

Harry Guerin