Sam Worthington

Perseus (Sam Worthington) and Zeus (Liam Neeson) reunite in ‘Wrath of the Titans.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros).

No one was really asking for a sequel to 2010’s “Clash of the Titans.” After all, that film was an absolute mess; a horrendously written money pit that somehow managed to nail the casting of its mythical figures, but completely mishandled their portrayals. Any film that can bungle Liam Neeson as Zeus doesn’t deserve a second chance, and yet, Warner Bros decided to take another shot at this world and these characters. While “Wrath of the Titans” certainly isn’t at the height of its genre, it’s a vast improvement over the first film and pretty entertaining to boot.

The film picks up roughly a decade after the first. Perseus (Sam Worthington) has renounced his father, Zeus (Neeson), and is living as a human with his son. When Zeus is trapped by Hades (Ralph Fiennes) in an attempt to free their father Cronus, Perseus is drawn back into the struggle between gods and men and also has to contend with envious half brother Ares (Edgar Ramirez).

“Clash” director Louis Leterrier was replaced by Jonathan Liebesman between films, and it proves to be a mostly fruitful decision. With his last film, “Battle Los Angeles,” Liebesman displayed a good sense for racing through tedious character setup and goofy dialogue to get to the action, which he shoots with a gripping immediacy. All of those traits are on display here. Liebesman makes the film’s convoluted setup painless and quick, and before the film’s first reel is up, he’s thrown us into our first action sequence, an entertaining, visceral battle with a chimera.

Unfortunately, Liebesman struggles with later action scenes. Too many of the film’s biggest beats lack a sense of geography or consistency, leading to general incomprehensibility. Even so, he recovers nicely for the finale, which manages to bring the film’s narrative to a satisfying, appropriately rousing climax and impresses in terms of scale, narrative movement and special effects.

It’s a shame that so much of “Wrath’s” action is a failure, because the film’s story is paper-thin, a mishmash of Greek mythology’s MVPs thrown together with the creativity you might expect from a 7-year-old breathlessly banging his action figures together. The film’s dialogue is often hilariously obvious, and Sam Worthington continues to be a charismatic black hole, not especially likeable or sympathetic, but good-looking enough to be classified a leading man nonetheless. Better casted are Ralph Fiennes and especially Liam Neeson, whose steely gravitas is fantastically suited to the Greek gods of lore.

“Wrath of the Titans” isn’t always great, and it’s often pretty stupid. Even so, Liebesman gets a few moments to show off some legitimate chops for action, and Liam Neeson gets to be Zeus, which is all I really wanted from these films to begin with. It’s a massive step up for the franchise, but in a week where theaters around the country are playing “The Raid: Redemption,” it’s a huge step down for action fans.

(Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Ever since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival almost a year ago, things certainly haven’t been easy for “The Debt.” After all, it was a major awards player before its premiere — an intense Jewish revenge film starring Oscar mainstays Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson as well as rising stars Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington. After the film met lukewarm reception in Toronto, it floundered around for a year or so and is now finally being released to theaters. Is it the disaster a few critics at Toronto lambasted it for being? No. Is it the major Oscar player it could have been? Probably not. But it is a relatively well-paced, fairly intense thriller that makes for a good distraction for a couple of hours.

The film opens just short of present day, staging a late ’90s book release detailing the process by which Mossad agents Rachel (Helen Mirren), Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciaran Hinds) killed the nefarious Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a surgeon who performed endless atrocities during the Holocaust. Quickly, the film dives into the past, as younger versions of the characters (played by Chastain, Marton Csokas and Worthington, respectively) go about their mission.

Director John Madden impresses throughout the film with his strong sense of pacing, smooth transitions between the past and the present, and a few brutal, ugly fight scenes that strip away any glamour the agents think their mission may hold. The film’s problems rest mostly in the script, co-written by the usually reliable Matthew Vaughn, who directed this summer’s “X-Men: First Class” and last year’s “Kick-Ass.” “The Debt” has all the makings of a great tragedy — a lie agreed upon by loose allies, lost loves and gallons of blood spilled thanks to the various characters’ fatal flaws, but its screenplay falls short.

The film’s lengthy middle section, which showcases the long period the three agents spend cooped up in a grungy apartment with Christensen’s surgeon as their hostage, plays out kind of like a play, allowing us to get to know the characters and all their nuances. Unfortunately, they aren’t nearly as interesting as the film thinks they are and the inevitable love triangle that forms is soapy, not compelling.

Chastain’s Rachel is easily the most relatable and interesting character in the film, thanks in no small part to Chastain, who is given more room to build a character here than in Terrence Malick’s flighty “The Tree of Life.” Though Rachel is saddled by slightly inconsistent characterization, Chastain brings a strength and intensity to her that you might not expect from her gentle disposition. Worthington (remember him?) struggles to breathe life into his disciplined, quiet David. Csokas’ Stephan is barely a character as much as he is a placeholder. The elderly versions of the characters are better acted across the board thanks to masters Mirren, Wilkinson and Hinds, but Wilkinson and Hinds are wasted as Mirren takes the center stage for most of the film’s third act.

Much of the disdain from the film’s Toronto premiere came from the film’s morally ambiguous conclusion, and the film spends a bit too much time building up to its big reveal and not enough time justifying it. Even so, when the film’s key moment comes around, it’s more of an obvious plot development than the mind-blowing twist it wants to be considered, and it’s certainly not anything disastrous enough to derail the film entirely.

“The Debt” is by no means the Oscar contender it was positioned as, but it’s still a film with its own small little charms, mostly thanks to the fantastic dual portrayals of Rachel Singer by Chastain and Mirren. While it plays as something of a smaller-scale version of Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” “The Debt” is an often suspenseful, interesting thriller. It’s not a film that you’ll be thinking about for the rest of the year (or even after you leave the theater), but it’s still one worth seeking out.

Printed on September 1, 2011 as: Stellar cast shines in "The Debt," film struggles with screenplay