The one thing that has kept me from readily digging into Greek mythology as a revered source of storytelling was the idea that gods were petty, meddlesome beings. Even while wowed by the work of Ray Harryhausen in bringing creatures of lore to life on film, it was the quarrelsome interactions between Heaven and Earth that kept me from fully embracing the destinies of classic heroes.
Immortals doesn’t deviate from that fabulist tradition, and that’s fine. If anything, the setting of 1228 B.C. Greece seeks to lend an air of doubt, as some began to treat gods as relics of the past. Naturally, they do exist and have warred, imprisoning their challengers -- the Titans -- deep within Mount Tartaros and swearing by Zeus (Luke Evans) to never interfere with the ways of man. To punish them for not saving his wife and daughter from death, King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, croaky as ever) has decided to wage a brutal campaign against his fellow man in order to find the Epirus Bow, a mythical weapon that could set the Titans loose once more.
Hyperion dares the gods to stop him, and as if welcoming the challenge, he dares peasant Theseus (Henry Cavill) to stop him as well by killing his mother before his very eyes. What the king doesn’t know is that Theseus has been well-trained by Zeus in disguise (as John Hurt) to become the avenger that mankind will someday need. So, along with oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto), thief Stavros (Stephen Dorff), and, well, The Monk (Greg Bryk), he sets out to find the Bow before Hyperion can wield it against man and God alike.
The question is, how does this differ from any other big-budget swords-and-sandals picture of late, namely 300 and last year’s remake of Clash of the Titans? Answer: it has director Tarsem Singh in its corner, and he applies the same sumptuous style that he brought to The Fall, The Cell, music videos, and commercials. Hyperion’s soldiers are adorned in increasingly garish feats of head gear, culminating in one gent’s bull-shaped barb-wire helmet. Tarsem even finds an excuse to coat entire scenes in black oil instead of body oil for a change, and the result is like watching a latter-day Bond credits sequence for two minutes, because why not. All the while, Trevor Morris’ score is aptly bombastic, heavy on horns, drums, and choral lament.
The audio-visual flair is enough to offset the frequency with which characters pose -- with ripped men often shirtless and lovely ladies draped in fabric that won’t quit -- when they’re not posturing about faith and destiny and all that Ancient Greece/Joseph Campbell jazz. Superman-to-be Cavill sure wields a mighty spear, both in battle and in the bedroom, yet he’s a hero in the Sam Worthington tradition: handsome, clearly invested in the role, but without the gravitas to fully embody a legend, albeit in an age when nobody really worships these types of heroes anymore. Perhaps it’s futile, although that didn’t stop Gerard Butler from putting his stamp on the role all the same; thankfully, shared producers or not, this film doesn’t share that film’s fascist tint, opting instead to take a more romantic approach before dutifully drenching the lush scenery in digital bloodshed. (You’ve never known that so many men could lose their heads in so many different ways.)
“Pretty and there” goes double for Pinto’s character, the least tortured woman in sight, while Dorff gets to spout the occasional innuendo with relish more typical of 300’s take-it-or-leave-it tone. Evans -- already Apollo himself in Titans 2.0 -- brings a surprising amount of weight to his role as a ruler torn between obeying his own decree on Mount Olympus and saving his subjects from themselves. On the opposite end of the spectrum falls Rourke, as he steps even closer to the paycheck turf of De Niro and Pacino. While his brutality seems feasible (although how many masked minions must we watch him dispatch between snacks?), the righteous anger that fuels his quest for revenge is barely there. Breaking necks is easy, but a broken heart is hard to find.
It ends in a numbing climax, with displays of violence as fluid and florid as you’ll see all year and a goofy-cool tease for further adventures that I doubt will ever come to fruition. Immortals may not be as rousing as the films that came before it, or the stories that have been preserved from long ago, but the sweeping scope and overwrought matinee appeal remain, old cheese repackaged for today’s pixel-thirsty masses. This is the New Silly, puffed-up style worthy of trumped-up lore, and like I said: that’s fine.