Gods, no less than the mortals whose lives they capriciously control, can fall on hard times. Two years after flexing his divinity in the worldwide hit Clash of the Titans, the Olympian boss-man Zeus (Liam Neeson) frets that he and his clan have outlived their grandeur. In the minds of the once-worshipful, now agnostic humans, the deities have devolved from supreme beings to action figures. “Without prayer,” Zeus muses, “we gods lose our power” — they can’t intimidate people who don’t believe in them. So he and his brothers Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Poseidon (Danny Huston) sit around Olympus, mewling and bickering like deposed CEOs at a Florida retirement condo. If the fate of the world, and the heavens too, weren’t at stake, their humbled status might be the premise for a sitcom: not The Golden Girls but The Golden Gods.
Wrath of the Titans, like its predecessor, is a slightly-better-than-OK mashing of one of history’s great literary troves: the Greek myths. The family rivalries — Cronos castrating his father Uranus, then getting killing off by his son Zeus, whose dalliances with human women resulted in a half-dozen or so bastard half-god offspring — have stoked three millennia of bedtime stories that left children horrified, fascinated and agog. Some of those kids grew up to be film directors, who know a good story when they hear one, if not a good movie when they try to make one.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Clash of the Titans)
Jonathan Liebesman, the South African schlockmeister who imagined an alien invasion in last year’s Battle Los Angeles, is no De Mille or Spielberg, but he and the screenwriters (Dan Mazeau, David Leslie Johnson and Greg Berlanti) are canny enough to perk up the drama by importing a monster from the Greek bestiary — the Chimera, the Minotaur, a few Cyclopses — for a rousing wrassling match whenever the proceedings get too wordy. Unencumbered by artistic ambition, and clocking in at a brisk 90 minutes (before the endless end credits begin), Wrath radiates the straight-forward, straight-faced pleasures of the mytho-muscular epics, like Hercules and Jason and the Argonauts, produced in Europe a half-century ago. It’s kid stuff for bookworms, a Classics comic book brought to fitfully vigorous life.
As Clash did, Wrath opens with Zeus’s favorite spawn Perseus (Sam Worthington) toiling as a humble fisherman. A little ashamed of his paternal lineage, the young hero ignores his god-father’s flattery that “Being half-human makes you stronger than a god, not weaker.” For Perseus, being a good parent means staying at home with his young son Helios (John Bell). Finally acceding to Zeus’s pleas to join forces against Cronos and Hades, as if he were a teenager asked to go on a business trip with his father — all right, Dad, I’ll help you save the world — Perseus hooks up with Princess Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) and the mischievous Agenor (Toby Kebbell), one of Poseidon’s sons. Along for the ride is the white, winged horse Pegasus, also sired by Poseidon; the gods weren’t too picky about their sexual partners.
(READ: Corliss’ review of the myth-illogical Immortals)
Though the film boasts a coherently rusty look, as if the sets from the first movie were left out in the rain for a couple of years, the acting styles on display are entertainingly discontiguous. Neeson and Fiennes, repeating their roles from Clash (and, metaphorically, the fraught hero and sadistic villain they played in Schindler’s List), are Teflon stars; no embarrassment sticks to their serioso commitment to what might seem ludicrous material. Intoning lofty platitudes while importantly stroking his cotton-candy beard, Neeson is a figure of compromised majesty. Fiennes, exuding sulfurous resolve as Hades, cadges some sympathy for a god who is asked to align with Zeus, the younger brother who consigned him to the lower depths.
The rest of the cast is all over the place, geographically and thespically. Worthington, the Australian hunk from Avatar, lets his accent wander from Down Under to middle-American to faux-British. Kebbell, perhaps encouraged to be the comic relief, seems to be channeling Russell Brand doing a Freddie Mercury impression. As Ares, the warrior-god who resolves to kill Perseus in front of Helios so that the child will “know what it feels like when someone takes your father away from you,” Edgar Ramirez — such a magnetic force as the terrorist Carlos the Jackal in Olivier Assayas’s 2010 bio-pic Carlos — fulminates a little too furiously; apparently he didn’t get the memo that, in this movie, bad guys don’t preen. Neither did Bill Nighy, who makes a late appearance as the crafty Hephaestus. But then Nighy, known to mall audiences as Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, is always madly, delightfully mannered — as if other Brit actors of his generation trained at RADA and he went to Clown College.
By the end, when Cronos materializes as a mountain-high beast of sooty cloud and molten rock, three generations of titans are engaged in a volcanic family feud. As if promising an end to the franchise, Zeus declares that “There will be no more sacrifices, no more gods.” But Hades provides a hint of another sequel when, after acknowledging that “All my power is spent,” he adds delphically, “Who knows? I might be stronger without it.” Who knows? The same worldwide audience that paid nearly a half-billion dollars to see Clash of the Titans. If moviegoers show the same fidelity to this movie, then ancient Greece’s most prominent senior citizens will be back in two years for one more Crash, Stash or just plain old Bash.