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Wrath of the Titans Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 1, 2012 at 4:41 PM

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    Wrath of the Titans Review

    It’s never easy being a single-parent, but spare a thought for dogged demigod Perseus. Not only is he trying to teach his son all the necessary life-lessons to get by in the ancient world in the wake of his mother’s passing – how to fish, not to pick up a sword in anger and most definitely not to get embroiled in the schemes of the Gods – but he’s got to contend with fire-breathing monsters, embittered Cyclops, ever-shifting Rubik Cube labyrinths and their resident Minotaurs, Chimeras and all the associated lightning bolts, Homeric machinations and sibling rivalries that make up the Wrath of the Titans.

    It’s a bit more strenuous than the school-run, that’s for sure. Even for the son of Zeus.

    When Louis Leterrier strapped on sword and sandals in 2010 for his remake of Clash, he unarguably dropped the Olympic ball with what should have been a golden ticket to fantasy nirvana. An unnecessarily convoluted story, a resolutely bland leading man in Sam Worthington, lashings of CG at the expense of narrative and no real sense of excitement, wonder or suspense, and characters that you just didn’t care about – in fact, it killed off the only ones who were any good in the blink of an eye, namely Liam Cunningham’s amusing Solon. And yet, the film is something of a guilty pleasure, and one that, after I had originally slated it, have found myself going back to on several occasions. With brain set to snooze, it provides more than enough eye-candy with a nonstop creature cavalcade and Gemma Arterton’s gorgeous Io, the Goddess of Exposition, and you tend to question just what it was that you expected from a big budget retelling of what was, I’m afraid, a very poor final outing for the great Ray Harryhausen. In fact, I and my son sat and watched the remake before we gathered up his gaggle of mini-Argonauts and piled in at the flicks to watch the follow-up. And, I have to tell you, I really enjoyed my extended excursion into the land of Titans.

    Without a doubt, Wrath, directed by South African Jonathan Liebesman, is a more satisfying experience than its predecessor right from the outset. The story is no better than the original, the acting just about on a par – with Worthington a pure charisma-vacuum once again – and the characters are mere ciphers to get you from one place to another, but the set-pieces and the scale of the action reaches new levels of grandeur and chaos. And, let’s face it, that is what you are looking for in a flick of this nature. There are moments here that are genuinely thrilling and wildly cinematic.

    The events take place ten years on from Perseus’ previous Titan-antagonising exploits. With his weapons and armour hidden away, he tries to keep his son Helius (John Bell) on the straight and narrow, and safe, and is doing his best to deal with the knowledge of his own bloodline. The mother of his son has since died – which means that we only learn of her via a dream flashback and a memory of a cliff-top burial – which is a convenient way to distance the ensuing plot from that of The Mummy Returns, which it does resemble. But a happy and peaceful existence is not written in the stars for Perseus. There’s trouble in the heavens. Hades (Ralph Fiennes) is up to no good again. He’s now got Zeus’ other, more Godlier son, Ares (Edgar Ramirez), who just happens to be the God of War, under his swirling harpy wing and the two manage to trick the big shimmering King of the Gods into journeying down into the Underworld whereupon they mortally wound his powerful ally, Poseidon (Danny Huston – who actually gets a few lines this time out), and enslave him. Once again, there’s the threat of unleashing those bloody Titans, and to this end Hades wants to release the mighty rock and fire demon, Kronos, from his stone-encased prison slumber in the dark heart of Tartaris. Kronos is actually the father of the ever-squabbling brothers Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, but there’s never quite enough love to go around on Mount Olympus, is there? Overthrown by the trio of sons an eternity ago, he’s quite relishing the prospect of some payback, and taking the world of Man in his brimstone paw.

    With his powers being drained away from him, his own son relentlessly torturing him and his Hadean brother hissing ominous threats in his ear, poor Zeus is not having such a great time. Note to self: never make a supposedly unannounced visit to the Underworld.

    So, with the Gods losing control over the Titans, the danger to the world is palpable, with an apocalypse edging ever closer.

    Perseus undertakes the mission to venture down into Hell to rescue his father and save the world. As you would. In this campaign he enlists the aid of Poseidon’s half-human son (Ye Gods, they were all at it, weren’t they?), Argenor (played by a swarthy, buffed-up Toby Kebbell), dementia-riddled architect of the Gods, Hephaestus, and warrior-babe, Andromeda, who has transformed from the incredibly boring, doll-faced Alexa Davalos into the fit frost-maiden of Rosamund Pike. With vast Grecian armies just waiting in the trenches for the final push, it is down to these guys to gather up the three parts of Zeus’ mighty lightning-rod spear and free him in time to thwart Kronos from barbequing history.

    Liebesman knows how to direct action and how to marshal welters of special effects together, yet he is not so adept at gaining great performances from his cast. With the atrocious BattleLA behind him, as well as the poor horror of DarknessFallsand The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, you can see his B-movie credentials shining brightly and, to be fair, that’s no bad thing with material such as this. With the Harryhausen series being the truest influence upon both the newTitan tales, the main focus is upon a set-piece odyssey that pitches one hero and a dwindling band of followers against successive obstacles that culminate in a huge, destiny-crushing confrontation to decide the fate of everything. In keeping with this course of action, there’s no character angst to arc through the story like there is in Gladiator, say, and no sense of the ripe pantomime you would find in a Pirates of the Caribbean offering. Heroes just sort of arrive and go on quests. Everything that happens tends to be at the whim of the Gods and, thus, these ancient crusaders tend to get a helping hand all too often – which kind of means that they learn nothing about themselves other than gaining a semblance of humility throughout their ordeal. Liebesman knows what is expected of him – to make a better job of such wilfully juvenile material than Leterrier did. And with a budget that could save some nations from bankruptcy and a professionalism that certainly doesn’t seem to overstretch itself, that isn’t too difficult a challenge. Thus, Perseus is still a completely one-note cardboard cut-out of a hero, albeit with some hair now (and it’s not a good look, either) who merely growls and sneers his way from one encounter to the next. There has an attempt to give him a sense of humour, but this is clumsy and, thankfully, jettisoned quite swiftly. Worthington can run and jump and fight … but a good actor, he is not.

    The motivation of the rest of the armoured clan runs no deeper. Rosamund Pike, so serenely sexy and vaguely Nordic-looking, still couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag, and uttering battle plans and strategies to waiting men-at-arms only makes her sound even sillier. At least, Liebesman keeps the burgeoning romance between Andromeda and Perseus off the map until the very last minute – to have seen Pike and Worthers in a clinch or muttering their undying love for one another en route would have completely derailed the film and elicited mass audience groaning. In fact, he must be given some credit for this. Although subconsciously this relationship is never in question, the film chooses to concentrate purely on the derring-do with affairs of the heart happily flung out of the proceedings for pretty much the majority of the running time.

    Even if there is a middle act lull, Liebesman does extremely well with the frenetic heroism.

    When snarling rhino-like flame-beasts, the Chimera, descend upon his fishing village, Perseus is forced to take up arms again. With sword and shield, he runs through huts and hovels, dodging fireballs and trying to save his boy from premature cremation. One terrific shot follows him as he charges up onto the roofs and runs parallel to a rampaging monster, his pursuit then taking him off the edge of the end building and down onto the hide of the Hadean arsonist. A later skirmish with a threesome of Cyclops has you rolling and weaving around the trees alongside the heroic party as they attempt to evade the earthquake-inducing impacts of their war-clubs. The sight the Gods striding into battle and hurling lightning and energy-bolts as they go is actually quite inspired. At long last, we get to see these world-creating/destroying beings in action, even if it does remind you a bit about Tolkien’s duelling wizards. In fact, take a look at the whirling dervish shock-troops, the Makhai, who spin their way into battle during the final conflict. If you can spot them properly – they move really fast so that is harder than it sounds – they resemble the berserkers who stormed Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers. And of course, there’s no prizes for guessing what other fire-demon from the “Ancient Time” might be related to the walking thermonuclear explosion of Kronos!

    Liam Neeson must be the busiest man in Hollywood at the moment. With The Grey at the start of the year, this and Battleship fast approaching, the big man is straddling the market with both art-house character study and pure commercial froth seemingly at his beck and call. There’s no great stretch to his portrayal of Zeus, but this doesn’t matter. Neeson is one of those actors who could simply read aloud his shopping list and still make it powerful and entertaining. He gets to look like a cross between Heston’s Moses and Gandalf in this and, once again, he stares death in the face as he makes another big screen sacrifice. At this rate of heroic self-annihilation, I’m willing to bet that he makes a moving final speech to his crew before ramming his vessel into the alien war-machine at the end of Battleship to save the day. His brothers in wigs, Huston and Fiennes, do their damnedest to bring class to the production. Huston, sadly, is still rather underused, although he does get a slice of the action. Fiennes was given some decent reviews for bringing such slimy roguishness to the first film, but I didn’t think all that much of his performance. As a special effect of swirling wisps of harpy-vapour, he was brilliant, but his hushed halitosis delivery was the stuff of yawns not tremors. Here, he is a little bit better. He and his former Schindler’s List-maker Neeson get to chew the brotherly fat down in the Underworld, mulling over the things that have brought them to such a position of betrayal and hatred. But the quiet evil that he brought to his Nazi monster for Spielberg and his snake-like menace as Lord Voldemort is nowhere to be seen as Hades, I’m afraid.

    The real skulduggery is left to Ramirez, who takes a thuggish delight in getting his own back on both his father and his half-human brother. In a way it is refreshing to have someone that Perseus can actually go up against in a straight-on brawl, and their tussle is, indeed, meaty and bone-crunching. Heads are rammed into masonry and there’s some choice torso-welting kicks being dished-out. Let’s not forget that Ramirez was one of those nasty “assets” that Jason Bourne had to go up against. Aye, Ares is a tough cookie and one that brings a physicality that is all human and not CG.

    Naturally for a supposed family fantasy, there are some light-hearted elements to balance out the brutality. Bill Nighy brings a touch of the “I don’t belieeeve its” to his role of the Fallen One, the reclusive weapons-manufacturer of the Gods, Hephaestus, channelling a rather endearing, though curiously misplaced blend of TV’s the Crow Man, Victor Meldrew and even his own Davy Jones to the offbeat old custodian of the labyrinth. Both he and Kebbell try to inject an offbeat sense of fun, but it is clear that they are being used for comedy value, and this runs the risk of incurring grown-up wrath at clunking quips that seem mistimed (from Kebbell, especially, who would have been much better if he hadn’t been saddled with too many duff lines that just fall flat). Nighy does bring a quirky charm to the film, though, even if his ancient Alzheimer’s does provide a unwelcome return for that blasted robot owl, Bubo! The film makes the mistake of having Argenor turn into some kind of highly trained warrior chieftain for the big battle climax. Remember how Jar Jar Binks seemed to be giving orders to the Gungans just before the droid army marched into their ranks? Well, this feels just as awkward and shoehorned-in. He was a comedy stooge throughout the rest of the film, and now he’s suddenly a master tactician in command of Greece’s elite hoplites. Erm … no.

    So, there is still much about this stumbles. But, overall, I felt far comfier and more attuned to the good stuff than the bad this time out. You’ve just got to accept it for what it is – a fun, FX-loaded stomp across the myths and legends of Ancient Greece. It is not a history lesson, it just wants to thrill and amaze for ninety minutes.

    I saw John Carter in both 3D and 2D (on the same day!) and had no qualms at all about recommending the 2D version over its three-dimensional counterpart, even though the post-conversion it had received was actually quite good. We all know that 2010’s Clash was a big-screen nightmare of nauseatingly inept 3D that rendered a relatively simple tale almost impossible to follow on-screen. I had initially thought that Liebesman was going to be making the sequel in 3D from the beginning, and when it became clear that this was, in fact, going to be another post-conversion effort, I naturally feared the worst. Given the choice I would have opted for the 2D alternative, which was also showing, but it’s hard to talk a gang of preteen lads out of seeing something that promises to hurl monsters into their laps. So I’m quite happy to report that although the image was slightly blurred from time to time, the action was coherent, immersive and the 3D effects, all gimmicky but no less fun because of it, actually worked well this time out. The image wasn’t dark, and the fast action was easily followed and the sense of depth was immediately appreciable. Lots of rocks and debris fly out at you, weaponry and demonic visages thrust their way from the screen, and there are several rushing travelogue shots – a descent into the Underworld and the shape-shifting mechanics of the maze – that induce a pleasing, fun-ride sense of vertigo. The image often has glowing embers or dust wafting across it, and this looks quite hypnotic. Liebesman has stated that they devised the film with all of this stuff in mind, so the bolt-on would not be as jarring as the first production. And he’s right. This said, the film does not overly rely on such elements, meaning that it is not overkill for the sake of it. I have no doubts at all that the 2D version will be superior, but if, like me, you don’t have a choice in the matter then the 3D will not be at all uncomfortable or disappointing.

    For the most part, the CG is excellent. Demons hurtle from the skies like hate-fuelled missiles, raining down upon the earth to rise from their craters and slice ‘n’ dice and immolate all in their path. When Gods fall by the wayside they turn to stone and then crumble to dust. The labyrinth is a dizzying realm of walls moving past you at express speed, floors dropping from beneath you and tunnels reconfiguring all the way around you. And the mighty Kronos, a sure-fire relative of the Balrog, who claws his way to the surface from his prison down in the Underworld, is a thing of molten beauty, a ferociously huge entity with a scorched-earth policy who becomes a seething land-mass in his own right. The scenery is majestic. There are far more temples and ruins to peruse this time out, and the visual scope of Hades’ hellish hidey-hole is breathtaking. The forest-tussle with a trio of club-wielding Cyclops definitely recalls The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, with a system of elaborate traps used to capture humans, and there is some shuddering fury to the helter-skelter melee. But the film loses points, especially in the 3D version, for the shots when the giants thrust their faces right out at us. For some reason, the veil of disbelief-suspension just falls away right there and I was reminded of the dreadful CG that had Hugh Jackman getting up close and personal with Mr. Hyde in the thoroughly lousy Van Helsing.

    The Peter Jackson ethic of endless fly-bys over CG-enhanced environments is very much to the forefront of our passage through this bygone, ruin-encrusted world. However, the finale of the film is a battle of huge proportions, with basically one character acting as almost the entire enemy. Kronos is a leviathan of incendiary rage, a figure that dominates the screen with mighty swinging arms of muscle-bound flame. The camera spins around his swelling mass with fawning admiration. He is the Kraken’s baton-change. The Kraken in the original Harryhausen picture was a huge letdown because it did absolutely nothing except stand there in the sea. At least in Leterrier’s adaptation, the amphibian colossus wrought spectacular havoc upon the city of Argos … and it looked a helluva lot more intimidating too. However, as good as Kronos looks and as exciting as it is to see him rising like a lava-veined mountain, he is actually something of a retro-step. He hurls fire-balls from afar and unleashes an army of double-torsoed berserkers to spin and hack their way through the legions of Greek’s finest creature-fodder, but he still merely stands there and bellows. It’s obviously true that the size differential would make battling the bugger almost impossible to realise, but there is still the niggling idea that he merely stands there and bellows a lot. With subsequent viewings on the smaller screen, once the awe of his towering appearance has diminished, I feel he will become just as anticlimactic as the Harryhausen Kraken.

    Composer Ramin Dajawdi may have redeemed himself in my ears with his truly fantastic score for HBO’s Game of Thrones but his music for the previous Perseus adventure was grinding, over-produced tripe of the least imaginative sort. This time around, the score is from Javier Navarette (Pan’s Labyrinth/The Devil’s Backbone) is much better, more orchestral and far better suited to the story and the character of the piece. I enjoyed listening to his music during the movie, especially the grand build-up to the face-off with Kronos, and I made a note to catch hold of the soundtrack CD for a separate review … and, yet, when I left the flicks, I discovered that I couldn’t recall any of the material I’d heard. I’m not sure what that means exactly … but it’s never happened to me, an obsessive score collector, before.

    I love the fact that we now have a thriving sub-genre of mythical action flicks to rival the output of the fifties and sixties. What with Troy, 300, Immortals, Conan The Barbarian, The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit and TV’s Game of Thrones, fantasy fans can feel quite glutted with sword ‘n’ shield carnage, magic and prophecy, and big, big monsters. It may not be saying much to cite Wrath as being an improvement upon Clash, but this is good, old fashioned fun, boasting mostly superb FX-work and enough action and chaos to stir the blade-wielding hero that resides in all of us. I’m not sure where we could go with any further instalments and, despite my enjoyment of this second tour of Olympian duty, I think I’ve had enough of Sam Worthington in the role, anyway. Mind you, he’s going to tied-up with blue-skinned business on Pandora for awhile, isn’t he? And he can stay there too, as far as I’m concerned.

    For now though, Wrath of the Titans is good, solid entertainment. It is not out to change the world, just to provide a colourfully valiant and escapist antidote to its tedium and its taxes. And that’s always a welcome proposition in my book.


    Verdict

    The Titans franchise isn’t exactly an Olympian pinnacle in fantasy cinema, but this does not mean that they aren’t actually very enjoyable at the same time. The previous Clash was met with critical disappointment and derision, but it was still very popular and has been something of a guilty pleasure for me. This second mythical outing in the company of the Gods and monsters of ancient Greece is a much stronger instalment that gives both Neeson and Fiennes more to do, ups the action quota and aims squarely at delivering nothing other than pure popcorn entertainment. It is a shame that Worthington forgets, once again, to bring any charisma to the party. I don’t dislike him at all, but then … seeing his name attached to a film can’t help but relegate it to the bottom of the To Watch list. And yet despite this, you can’t help but be drawn into Perseus’ own odyssey into the Underworld and beyond.

    The 3D post-conversion is nowhere the appalling standards of the first film, and if you cannot avoid seeing this version as opposed to the 2D then fear not … because they’ve done it quite well this time out. The gimmicks are all there – and why shouldn’t they be? – and the sense of depth and immersion is more than decent throughout.

    Not everyone can see the film with a squad of eleven-year-old wannabe heroes like I did, but that shouldn’t stop you from experiencing the same sort of escapist thrill as warriors battle monsters, the earth spits out hordes of ugly creatures to lay waste to vast swathes of scenery, and the biggest goddamn demon you’ve ever seen belches fire all over the place.

    This is large scale fun that knows its audience and aims to deliver spectacle and excitement to those who appreciate it. Nothing more. Nothing less. A 7 out of 10 from me ... even though it's got Sam Worthington in it!


    The Rundown


    7
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

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