Friday, March 30, 2012

The Titans Strike Back: WRATH OF THE TITANS

The 2010 remake of 1981’s campy Greek mythology monster movie Clash of the Titans has the dubious distinction of being a hit movie that’s terribly forgettable. I remember being downright bored not liking it and that Sam Worthington fought a giant scorpion and everyone loved how Liam Neeson growled “Release the Kraken!” in every trailer and commercial for the movie. Now here’s the sequel, this time around directed by Jonathan Liebesman, who last directed the alien-invasion war movie Battle: Los Angeles, which was one of the most chaotically uninvolving films I saw last year. So you can see why I approached Wrath of the Titans with a large degree of skepticism. It turns out to have mostly been unnecessary. The sequel may be no great movie – it’s still barely above middling in my book – but it’s a significant step forward and the kind of movie that works so well on its own you can go ahead and forget about seeing its predecessor if you’ve so far been lucky enough to avoid it.

Sam Worthington is back as Perseus, demigod son of Zeus. The opening narration tells us that after slaying the Kraken, he settled down as a fisherman in his seaside village where he lived a quiet, peaceful life raising his son on his own ever since whoever played his romantic interest in Clash decided she didn’t want to come back and do the sequel. Zeus (Liam Neeson) shows up at his son’s door to warn him that the gods are losing their powers and this means that they can’t keep all those monstrous Titans locked up anymore. Having delivered the message, Zeus meets up with Poseidon (Danny Huston) and together they head down to the Underworld, where they find that Hades (Ralph Fiennes) has joined forces with Ares (Edgar Ramirez) to kill off divine competition and free Kronos, who promises to restore the gods’ powers. Hades wounds Poseidon and captures Zeus and is well on his way to having his way.

Meanwhile, a giant, two-headed, fire-breathing, dog Titan attacks Perseus’s village. Once that’s dealt with, Poseidon shows up to deliver exposition, telling Perseus the nature of the quest that must be undertaken to restore peace. He even points out who must go with Perseus on the quest and where to find them. So the movie’s off and running in what seems like no time at all. The stakes are set – end of the world – and so is the goal: to unite Poseidon’s trident, Hades’s pitchfork, and Zeus’s lightning bolt and forge the ultimate weapon and only known Kronos killer. Perseus sets off on his flying horse Pegasus to find warrior-queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) and his half-brother, demigod Agenor (Toby Kebbell) and gets them to help find the weapons, rescue Zeus, and save the world.

Unlike its predecessor, Wrath of the Titans makes an asset of its thinness. It just hurtles right along, all so straightforward. None of the actors have much to do and none of the mortal characters ever really pop with any personality to speak of aside from generic action quips and interjections. It’s the gods who are memorable here and they’re only used sparingly. Even so, I found myself reacting to the people on screen as actors not as characters, as in, it’s kind of nice to see Edgar Ramirez hamming it up from beneath ancient armor. What fills the void where memorable characters go, what the entire movie rests upon, is how much enjoyment can be found in the monsters. On that level, the movie delivers. Here there be monsters.

Among the highlights are the kind of expensive-looking, effects-driven setpieces you’d expect from a movie like this. The group runs through a forest with a Cyclops duo hot on their heels. They wander through a cavernous underground labyrinth where hallucinations are eerie, but far less deadly than the Minotaur. And, in the terrific climax, a colossal volcanic man drips immense ribbons of lava and fiery debris down upon a puny mortal army. Liebesman stages these and other action beats in a way that’s more or less understandable and shows off the effects work well, incorporating digital effects and 3D tricks in a likably competent way. It may not have the personality of the kind of stop-motion work Ray Harryhausen did, but it displays a similar respect for the sensation of seeing a vivid monster that could only be made real in the movies. The walking lava cloud is especially memorable. I love the way Perseus rides the flying horse through the layers of dripping danger, bobbing and weaving through the 3D depths in a rather strikingly designed series of shots.

It’s an agreeable diversion of an action spectacle that kind of dissolves on impact. But it’s efficient, delivering the big effects moments without letting the exposition bog down the proceedings or spending too much time providing characterizations to the cardboard. It’s a supremely simple-minded movie that just comes right out and says these are the Good Guys, these are the Bad Guys, and these are the Monsters. Then all of the above run around and fight and then the credits roll. The movie doesn’t overstay its welcome and provides an excuse to sit inside and eat some popcorn while avoiding a spring rain shower. (In a few months, it’ll be a fun, unchallenging rental for a lazy Sunday afternoon when you’d rather watch a movie than take a nap). I wouldn’t call this a good movie, or even a particularly involving movie, but I will admit to having a small amount of affection for it nonetheless. To all the journeymen directors and writers out there: If you have to make an unnecessary sequel to a terrible remake, you might as well make it as watchable as this one.

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