Thursday, 5 April 2012

'Wrath of the Titans' review:

Perhaps I need to see a doctor because, the day after showering the universally acclaimed 'The Kid With A Bike' with disdain, I've gone and enjoyed what is (on paper) one of the year's most derisory blockbuster offerings: 'Wrath of the Titans'. The sum of its parts don't make for an appealing read: a post-converted 3D sequel to one of the most forgettable and bland flicks in recent memory (2010's re-make 'Clash of the Titans'), directed by Jonathan Liebesman - the guy responsible for the roundly condemned 'Battle: Los Angeles' - and starring Sam Worthington, the Aussie who has quickly become Hollywood's blandest action star. Yet, in the wake of the 'Transformers' movies, I now find myself impressed by any mainstream, effects-laden picture that is coherently made and sticks to a sensible running time (in this case a cool 99 minutes).

Under Liebesman's direction the "franchise" has adopted the ubiquitous shakey-cam approach designed to trick the viewer into feeling as though they are watching live news footage rather than the stuff of fantasy. And though I'm usually frustrated by this messy and disorienting technique, here - in a sword and sandal story of ancient Greek legend - it adds a refreshing immediacy and grit to a genre more commonly associated with glistening bronze pectorals. As Perseus, Worthington always has dirt under his fingernails and caked all over his body. He acquires fresh, gaping wounds from each new encounter with the mystical creatures he beats and, though we all know he will triumph, there is a genuine sense of jeopardy throughout: though the demigod son of Zeus he seems to be a fragile, mortal man in the company of much more powerful creatures.

A sequence near the start, that sees Perseus chase a winged and two headed beast through the streets of his small fishing village, feels far more kinetic and frantic than any other I've seen in a film of this kind. It may seem a bizarre and counter-productive choice to frame broad fantasy as realism but in doing so 'Wrath' is much more interesting than its prequel. Additionally you have Liam Neeson reprising the role of Zeus and Ralph Fiennes appearing again as Hades - with both lending the intended considerable gravitas (that's probably how the payments appear on their balance sheets) to moments of otherwise jaw-dropping sillyness. For his part Worthington isn't bad either: for the first time in a major American movie (at least that I'm aware of) he has been allowed to retain his Australian accent - breaking continuity with the original (but who really cares?) but allowing him to be a much more natural presence than usual.

The post-converted 3D isn't even terrible. The first film was rightly cited as an example of the practice at its worst, but here it's unobtrusive but ever-present and, in certain grand battle scenes, the sense of depth created gives the film's ultimate villain Kronos the necessary scale. In fact, the CGI rendering of Kronos is something of a triumph, with some really fantastic images created, with an early dream sequence being the overall highlight (as we see the gargantuan molten lava hands of the deity scooping up handfuls of soldiers and dropping them from a great height). Some of the other effects (notably the cyclops) fare less well, but overall the effects in 'Wrath' range from decent to spectacular.

Of course, I've chosen to accentuate the positive elements above. All said 'Wrath of the Titans' is still not a particularly good film. The dialogue doesn't venture beyond speaking important plot points aloud, with characters immediately greeted by name each time they appear and moments of action explained (like a rubbish radio play). As in the previous entry, the supporting characters are ill-defined and boring, and even an improved Worthington is not the most charismatic of leading men. Among the worst offenders is Bill Nighy who turns up as a former god and indulges in the worst kind of campy over-acting (which undermines the film's determinedly serious tone), whilst Rosamund Pike can't help but be an empty vessel as the film's perfunctory love interest.

When it comes to the love interest subplot (or tangible lack thereof) the film is at its very weakest, because Perseus falling for Pike's Andromeda seems to be based on nothing more than the fact she is the film's available female (FAF). As the FAF, Andromeda is never really shown to be particularly close to Perseus and they engage in few tender moments over the course of the running time. Only when the fighting is over is there that tokenistic kiss that condescends to say "and now here's some romance for the ladies". But it's insincere romance of the highest order. I've written before about the way major franchise action films have a serious problem with relationships. Or more to the point, writers have a hard time knowing what to do with them. Case in point: Gemma Arterton's FAF from the first movie is established to have died in the interim, allowing Perseus to go off and be a bloke without having the old ball and chain around.

Women exist in films like 'Wrath of the Titans' to be attained or conquered by the (male) protagonist and no more than that. Once conquered they no longer serve a purpose and are either killed off or arbitrarily separated from the hero (often to be attained all over again). The filmmakers may well point to the fact that, in 'Wrath', Andromeda is cast as a warrior queen who leads her troops into battle with a sword, rather than as some bashful damsel. Yet she is a passenger; She accompanies Perseus on his journey but never advances the plot herself. The one piece of knowledge she provides is awareness of the location of a more important male character... and even then it's because he's practically in the next room.

That 'Wrath of the Titans' is better than I expected, exceeding my sub-zero expectations, is not necessarily cause for celebration. But I'd be lying if I denied being entertained: impressed by the effects and immersed in much of the action thanks to the immediacy of Liebesman's camera. That said, it's got to rank as a second or third tier sort of blockbuster in a summer that's packed with genuine titans, such as 'The Avengers', 'The Dark Knight Rises', 'The Amazing Spider-Man', 'MIB: III' and the heavily-promoted 'Battleship'. But, as recent summers have shown, you could do far, far worse than see this particular bit of disposable pap. And - though saying so is sure to torpedo any slim credibility I might have accrued as a critic - I'd sooner sit through this again than watch a Belgian 11 year-old ride a bike.

'Wrath of the Titans' is out now in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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