“Immortals” is not a padded sparring match — it’s a street brawl in which the winner is the one willing to go for the eyes, crotch or both. “Immortals” attacks joints, twists arms behind backs and slowly applies painful pressure on squirming bodies. This is Mixed Martial Arts: Where “300” looked like a cartoon, this looks like a Grecian statue. “Immortals” starts as a rectangle of rock, but each blow is a hammer chipping away at the marble. Slowly a form appears. The theater shakes.
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This is director Tarsem Singh’s (“The Fall” — go watch it) foray into epic filmmaking. “Epic” in the sense of genre, not ambition, since most works by Tarsem are in some sense a piece of epic film. He possesses an eye for color, for composition. It’s not something that can be taught. Tarsem is an extravagant Terrence Malick. Where Malick specializes in making a husk of wheat look like the most wonderful gift God has bestowed on this Earth, Tarsem specializes in creating scenes that seem otherworldly. The two also share the same fault: weak storytelling.
In the world of swords and sandals, the story often ends up just another corpse. “Immortals” doesn’t challenge the audience with plot, and thankfully it doesn’t need to. Henry Cavill (TV’s “The Tudors”) plays Theseus, who must stop King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”) from releasing the Titans and destroying Hellenic society. Really though, it’s all just unimportant context for Singh to stage epic fistfights among breathtaking scenery.
It’s in the fighting where “Immortals” finds its soul. Combatants collide like trucks and everything is bone-crunching. It’s comparable to the scene in “Fast Five” where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Vin Diesel throw down mano-a-mano, and each grapple provokes a flinch. It’s like the warehouse scene in “Batman Begins,” where Bruce Wayne subdues cronies with the ferocity of an Israeli Special Forces agent. It’s the kind of combat where the audience leaves feeling sore.
The film’s soundtrack is bones breaking and bruises forming, and it’s loud. Sleigh Bells loud. Each blow is a wall of noise. Poseidon falls from Mount Olympus roaring like an F-15 engine. He hits the ocean, sending a tidal wave at the enemies of Theseus. It’s oppressive — the sound consumes the theater — and everyone shrinks under its weight. But, amazingly in this fog of sound, the audience can still hear the quiet breaths of the warriors. It’s a steady rhythm that constantly reminds that these are people, and they are struggling with the trials as much as the audience. They are gods, sons-of-gods and heroes, but in the film still they bleed, sweat and die.
“Immortals” is a film about brutality. It’s not perfect and at times it can horrible. Some dialogue promotes the same cringes as the vicious actions of Hyperion — people won’t be quoting “Immortals” like they did “300.” There are no classics like, “Tonight we dine in Hell!”
The moments of pure animal fury give “Immortals” its immortal qualities. In the heat of battle characters lay wild-eyed on the ground, bones sticking out of their thighs. Gods yell, but you can hardly pick up the words — you hear the strain in the god’s voice, the dripping of sweat, the crumbling of monuments, the steady breathing of a beast that knows its time has come. If epic filmmaking should make you feel small, then “Immortals” succeeds.