Monday, April 2, 2012

WRATH OF THE TITANS: Thunderbolt of Lightning, Or Very Very Frightening?


- Clash of the Titans had potential. It had a couple of nice action scenes, a decent cast (with many of the best actors relegated to bit parts), and a fun canvass of Greek myth on which to play. So I was hopeful that the sequel, WRATH OF THE TITANS, would be able to realize the potential squandered by its predecessor. To some extent, this second film in the franchise is a clear improvement. The Greek gods - played by titans like Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, and Ralph Fiennes - are given much more screentime. The battles are bigger and better, and the F/X even more eye-popping. The result is a perfectly fun popcorn flick that, like the first one, can be pretty dumb and nonsensical, but, more so than Clash, it can also be quite the spectacle.

WRATH picks up several years after the end of Clash. Perseus (Sam Worthington) is known throughout Greece as a hero after his previous adventures (whenever people see him, they make reference to the first film's "release the Kraken!" line). But Perseus has chosen not to live the life of a hero or a demi-god, but instead the simple life of a fisherman - raising his son Helius in quiet surroundings with a normal life. Helius, of course, dreams of being a hero like his father and wishes for adventure. Soon, he gets his wish. The god of thunder, Zeus, comes to visit his son Perseus, explaining that the gods' power is vastly weakened. Now that the people no longer pray to the gods, the gods are becoming mortal. Zeus is cool with that, but there's a problem: as the gods lose their power, the various magical spells they've cast over the years also begin to evaporate. Chief among them is the prison they've fashioned for the father of the gods, Kronos. Kronos is slowly becoming free, and already his armies of demon-creatures are laying waste to various lands. If Kronos himself is loosed, then it's goodnight Irene. Zeus thinks that if the gods ban together, with the help of Perseus they can stop Kronos. But as it turns out, a bunch of the gods - like Ares, god of war - have sided with Kronos. So yeah, Perseus has some serious odds to overcome if he wants to prevent oblivion.

That's the short version of the plot. In the film, the story comes off as complicated and convoluted as hell - and it's often tough to keep track of where Perseus is going and why. The whole film plays out with a videogame-esque fetch quest logic that may have made sense on paper, but can be very tough to decipher amidst the film's soap-opera theatrics and bombastic action scenes. At some point, you just have to stop thinking too hard about the plot and let yourself get wrapped up in the visual pyrotechnics. That said, this is not exactly a great script, and a lot of the dialogue does indeed land with a thud. In particular, a good deal of the "snappy" one-liners and zingers are super groan-worthy. And there is some real cheesiness that threatens to undermine any sort of gravitas that the movie wants to convey.

And so, a lot of responsibility for selling the convoluted and at times clunky script rests on the shoulders of the cast. Certainly, some pull it off better than others. The old pros like Danny Huston (Poseidon), Neeson (Zeus), Fiennes (Hades), and Nighy (Hephaestus) do a fantastic job, each of them capturing perfectly the pulpy-yet-weighty tone that the movie is going for. Guys like Neeson and Nighy deliver some of the film's best and most kickass moments. In fact, things really kick into high gear during the film's climax when Zeus and Hades finally get to kick ass with their god powers. "Let's have some fun!" intones Neeson. And indeed, we do. I'll also say again that Nighy is a blast as Hephaestus, playing the part of crazy old loon with pitch-perfect zaniness.

On the other hand, Sam Worthington's Perseus is still a bit of a wet blanket. He's decent, but just doesn't have quite the iconic feel of his more experienced supporting cast. Perseus is stuck with a lot of the film's clunkiest dialogue, so it's not all on Worthington - but still. Tony Kebbell is also pretty cheesy as the comic-relief sidekick, Agenor. He's got a couple of funny bits, but they are far outnumbered by eye-roll inducing moments. I also thought that Edgar Ramirez was a bit of a weak link among the gods as Ares. As one of the film's primary villains, I would have liked to see a little more flash and style for the god of war. As is, he feels a bit generic. Rosamund Pike is pretty good as warrior-queen Andromeda, though she only gets a couple of real moments to shine.

I am a big fan of Clash director Louis Leterrier, but Wrath director Jonathan Liebsman benefits from having a slightly better script to work with - with more and bigger action and more of a focus on the great actors like Neeson. Liebsman's action direction can be a bit choppy at time, but I give him credit - he stages some hugely ambitious battles, many of which are sprinkled with some damn cool imagery. I mean, how can you not geek out a bit for stuff like Perseus, perched atop a winged Pegasus, hurtling through the sky into the mouth of the giant, rampaging uber-god Kronos? There are several of those kewl moments scattered throughout Wrath, though Liebsman pulls off some of the st-pieces better than others. On one hand, a battle with a gang of angry cyclops is admittedly pretty awesome. On the other hand, Perseus' confrontation with the legendary minotaur is only okay, and nowhere near as good as Tarsem Singh's version in his recent Greek-myth-flick Immortals.

I will say, this film - much like Clash and also Immortals - takes a huge page visually from the videogame series God of War. Certain visual elements of the film feel totally lifted from GoW. On one hand, I love GoW so you may as well rip from the best. On the other hand, as with many films that borrow their aesthetics and pacing from videogames, you sometimes wonder if you'd be better off playing than watching - you know? Clash has the level-to-level, location-to-location jumpiness of a Playstation game, which proves a little less effective in a narratively-driven movie than in a game where the story serves the play mechanics. To that end, Wrath can feel convoluted and hollow, even if it does have a decent number of very fun-looking action scenes and suitably epic visuals.

No doubt, Wrath takes a while to pick up the pace, and the first half of the film can be a chore to get through at times. But, where I think Wrath does sort of come through in the homestretch is in the fact that, not only is it's climactic battle pretty sweet, but some of the father-and-son themes that had been slowly but surely building over the course of the film actually have a nice payoff. There's a surprisingly strong thematic thread here about father and son legacy, and hey, I'll admit it - there are some pretty great little moments towards the end of the film with Perseus and Helius.

Wrath of the Titans can often feel like cinematic junkfood, but it's solid blockbuster fun that overcomes clunky dialogue and a totally convoluted plot by delivering cool creatures, big battles, and a much-needed injection of gravitas from a couple of veteran thespian badasses. Not a great film, but a perfectly serviceable Saturday matinee.

My Grade: B

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