Review: ‘Wrath Of The Titans’ represents a big step forward from the first film

As giant monster movies go, “Wrath of the Titans” is definitely one of them.

I have written about both version of “Clash Of The Titans,” both the original Harryhausen film and the recent remake.  And now, Jonathan Liebesman has directed the sequel, which sort of veers off and does its own thing.  In that way, it falls right in line with the tradition of the Harryhausen sequel.  The Sinbad movies are all sort of generally connected and share a vague sense of continuity and reality, and when I think of the movies he worked on, not all of which were written and directed by the same people, I think of the monster fights.  The creatures.  The beasties.  The fabulous, fabulous beasties.

And about ten minutes into “Wrath of the Titans,” a fabulous beastie shows up and goes on a rampage, and Sam Worthington fights it, and he sort of gets his ass handed to him.  Reeeeeeeeeal hard.  And I kind of loved it.

There’s a lot about the movie that still doesn’t really work, but it’s been trimmed so there’s not an ounce of fat on it.  The movie is edited tightly, and there’s so little exposition at the beginning that it almost feels like they started the screening with reel two.  By the time I got my 3D glasses on, the movie was neck deep in its story.

Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes are brothers.  Zeus and Hades.  Heaven and Hell.  One to rule, one banished to the underworld.  That’s really all you need to know at the start of the film.  They were once Gods, powerful and otherworldly.  But as the faith of man has waned, so have they, and now the Underworld is starting to come apart.  This movie focuses on Tartarus, a dungeon buried deep in the Underworld, where Kronos, the father of Zeus and Hades and Poseidon, has been imprisoned, half-dead, in permanent slumber.  And at the start of the film, Hades and one of Zeus’s sons, Ares, double-cross Zeus and conspire to wake Kronos up and set him free.

In that sense, it’s basically the first film again.  Perseus, Sam Worthington’s character, is the half-son of Zeus, a demigod as opposed to a full-fledged God.  And for the decade since the first film’s events, he’s been living a quiet life and raising a son, Helius (John Bell).  And when his wife Io (played by in the first film by Gemma Arterton) died, she asked him to raise their son without a sword in his hand, a simple life away from war and danger.  Then he gets the call to action, and he has to spend the movie passing tests and gathering weapons and allies and then he faces a giant giant monster while riding Pegasus.

The difference is that I enjoyed it more this time overall.  Although they don’t spend much time setting up or trying to earn any sort of connection between Perseus and Helius, and they rely on whatever lingering memory you have of the father-son stuff between Neeson and Worthington in the first film, it still works.  It is not a ground-breaking interpretation of the basic archetypes, but the world that Liebesman creates feels of a piece to me.  It’s well-designed, and, yes, I saw it in 3D, and if you’re considering whether it’s “good” 3D, I thought it worked for both environmental effect and to sell the creatures in the big set pieces.  Liebesman seems at ease with the world-building required to pull this off, and the trick is that he really doesn’t waste a lot of time on things he doesn’t need.  He portrays a very narrow sliver of the world, just what Perseus sees during his adventures or what Zeus experiences in his Underworld prison.  The stories intersect at a certain point, and the big finish really is a BIG finish.

I thought the film was quite striking just on a visual level.  It’s a very pretty fantasy film, and like I said, the monsters are important to the overall movie.  They’re the reason the film is worth seeing theatrically. One thing I’ve noticed about both of Liebesman’s big giant movies (this and “Battle: Los Angeles”) is that Liebesman is a gamer.  Must be. Even though he’s not the writer of this one, there is a similarity to the visual vocabulary between the two films that suggests Liebesman thinks of his action in the way that you move through action in a game.  That is not a negative thing, per se.  It’s just an observation of the way scenes evolve or erupt in the film.  The studio put Greg Berlanti, David Johnson, and Dan Mazeau on the story, with Johnson and Mazeau credited with the script, and it’s a cleaner affair than the first one.  It moves in a fairly linear fashion, parceling out a little mythology at a time, and setting up each new movement of the film with the one before it.

If you told 1993 me that Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, stars of “Schindler’s List,” would also co-star in a series of movies based on “Clash Of The Titans,” I would have laughed and laughed.  And yet here they are, and I think in this film, they at least suggest the tensions that the film is dealing with.  In the first film, there’s not enough of a pulse for their work to register, but here, they’re better at suggesting this brotherly rift played on such a grand scale.  Toby Kebbell is good as Poseidon’s half-human demigod son Agenor, while Rosamund Pike steps for for Alexa Davalos as Andromeda and does well with a thinly-defined character.  Bill Nighy seems to have a little extra twinkle in his eye as Hephaestus, the builder of the weapons that each God carries.  The only one who really doesn’t fare well here is Edgar Ramirez as Ares, who never really figures out what he’s playing.  It’s a leaden performance, which is a shame, because it mutes whatever impact it might have had if we’d been invested in him as a bad guy by the time the third act rolls around.

I don’t think this is going to suddenly force everyone to rethink the entire franchise, but it’s a big step in the right direction, and if it’s monster action you want to see, the film certainly delivers on that front.  Worthington’s best skill as an actor seems to be his conviction when playing opposite nothing, and I like his fight scenes against the various monsters.  He always seems to be just on the verge of losing, which works to create a real tension in those scenes.  “Wrath Of The Titans” can be summed up by describing the work Worthington does in it:  still not great, but you’ve got to give it up for anyone who tries this hard.

“Wrath of the Titans” opens in theater this Friday.