Immortals: Myth the MMA way
by Patrick Lugo
Henry Cavill was 15 when Frank Miller and Lyn Varley were having 300 published by Dark Horse comics. Perhaps a little old for thwacking siblings with sticks and yelling "Sparta!" and likely too young to know the twenty (four hundred year old story of King Leonidas, and the battle of Thermopylae (480 BC). Miller himself is said to have been influenced by Rudolph Maté's, then thirty-six year old, THE 300 SPARTANS which he probably saw long before Cavill was born. Certainly aware of the intimate relationship comics has with mythology Miller presents his story as told by a story-teller; a rousing tale of heroes facing overwhelming evil and standing up for Truth (honor), Justice (Honor) and the . . . Spartan way. In 2006 Zack Snyder would create the most loyal comic-to-movie adaptions to date, infusing it with a contemporary "go army" subtext and a PS3 sensibility.
Controversal, the movie went on to inspire the production of a graphic novel prequel from Miller and a movie spin off in the form of 300: BATTLE OF ARTEMISIA, written by Snyder and his writing partner Kurt Johnstad. Modern audiences have developed enough of a taste for Swords and Sandals to keep such movies steadily in production over the past decade. It was the success of Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR in 2000 quickly followed by the tour-de-force of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy which probably had dozens of young actors scrambling to include sword skills in their repertoire, if not horsemanship as well. For Cavill, playing the role of Henry VIII's enforcer in the Showtime series THE TUDORS would include a good three years of both.
In 1998 Jean Frenette was already a hard working stuntman looking to make better use of his 8th Dan Black Belt in Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate. Barely a year old when THE 300 SPARTANS originally appeared, in Cinemascope he would begin training in Judo by age six. Ten years later he would earn his first Karate Black Belt and begin teaching a year later in his home town of Boucherville, Montreal, apparently his dojo is still in operation. That same year Frank Miller would also begin his career as an illustrator in the page of Gold Key Comics' THE TWILIGHT ZONE. By the time Miller first received the comic industry's prestigious KIRBY award for the best single issue, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS #1, Frenette had earned the bulk of his numerous awards for kata and kumite in Canada as well as the US and abroad. He's renowned for his pioneering work in incorporating music with karate demos, a staple in today's martial arts tournaments.
Miller's and Frenette's career paths would cross on the set of 300 where Jean's participation in the stunt team under Damon Caro would help free Hollywood from the Matrix's kung fu grip. Bullet-time and wire-fu were already the stuff of parody and the sword wielding efforts of TROY (2004 AD) and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005 AD) did more for the depiction of digital sieges on the big screen. Of course Zhang Yimou, Tsui Hark, Jet Li and Jackie Chan, were wielding the wuxia equivalent to epic effect overseas.
Ten years into the twenty-first century, movie-goers return again and again to the cinema with eyes fixed on ancient tales. While modern battlefields are more frequently viewed via game counsel monitors modern audiences seem to prefer battlefields dressed in capes, and sometimes little more. Even Disney traded mouse ears, first for a cutlass with the success of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise (beginning in 2003 AD and ongoing), then a scimitar with their less than successful PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME (2010 AD).
it's not difficult to imagine the line of thought which lead producers Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann and Gianni Nunnari to send the script to a film then called WAR OF THE GODS to visionary director Tarsem Singh. A classmate of Snyder's, Singh needed a little convincing from Goldmann before agreeing to helm this movie back 2008. Riding high from the success of 300, the producers were already looking to learn the lessons from which an even larger epic could be delivered. Development lagged long enough for last year's CLASH OF THE TITANS, a 3D remake of the great Ray Harryhausen's 1981 film, to debut to a lackluster response. in 1981 as Harryhausen released his last feature film, ABC aired IN LIKE FLINT a television movie which included Jean Frenette's first stunt work. Meanwhile, Frank Millar would begin his career as a writer and declare his love for martial arts with the creation of ninja assassin ELEKTRA in the pages of the Marvel Comic DAREDEVIL #168. Singh and Snyder were both students at the time, as was martial artist Roger Yuen.
In 2009 Roger Yuen learned Hindi for his role in the Bollywood film CHANDI CHOWK TO CHINA and played the Fiendish Dr. Wu opposite martial artist Michael Jai White in BLACK DYNAMITE that same year. With a black belt in Chuck Norris's Chun Kuk Do, itself a 90's era hybrid of the considerably older Korean martial art Tang Soo Do, Yuen was the man tasked with providing the training that would give Cavill the physique worthy of the Classical Greek aesthetic and the skill to convincingly wield a bronze age sword. The training was the sort martial artists dream of; eight hours a day, five days a week, spent with a sifu/sensei/sa boom determined to bring out your best. Yuen has even begun offering this training regime in seminar form along side martial artists such as former Shaolin Monk Yan Lei.
Tarsem Singh has only made a handful of movies audiences may remember. THE CELL (2000 AD) staring Jennifer Lopez and a misplaced Vince Vaughn established Singh's flair for visual panache and and capacity to tap into disturbing imagery haunting the periphery of insight. Following that movie with THE FALL in 2006, Tarsem's films became known for their lavash visuals and on-location shots which spanned the globe. With IMMORTALS he trades real world locations for digitally rendered settings that appear to be carved from wet clay and leather. This is not ancient Greece, not even the imagined Greece of 300. Instead he paints a landscape of the infinite horizons and towering cliffs that occupy our collective psyche, and the movie is better for it.
Following the mixed martial art credo, Tarem does not dogmatically stick to one tradition; in this case Greek mythology. Instead he picks elements from the broader array of storytelling archetypes to craft his hero's journey. It's as though he's built this movie to fit more comfortably with the cosmology of the movie theater, than any one literary source. Reaching back past CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982 AD) and BEASTMASTER (1982 AD) Tarsem channels European comics writer and sometime director Alejandro Jordenoski's THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (1973 AD) to inform the movie's structure. Set as cinematic frieze, the plot unfolds like one metope after another; in voluptuous 3D.
Tarsem has astutely cast this movie with actors whose filmography can also serve as backstory. From Mickey Rourke's post WRESTLER ascent to Freida Pinto's other-worldly poise and, of course, Cavill's own rising star ambition, Tarsem is rendering archetypes wants to remind the viewer of the connection the story has to its teller. This is a recurring motif for Tarsem and with the IMMORTALS he's dispensed with the framing devises he's used previously. Free to experience the movie as spectacle one can react to the aesthetic, sometimes even with an awkward chuckle.
Frenette gets to craft fights among mortals, men and women and this allows Rourke and Cavill to earn their work-outs. There is also the kung fu of gods who, behaving like superpowers, litter their world with weapons of mass destruction. While Theseus faces his mythical encounter in a maze reminiscent of the UFC octagon, Tarsem sets up a franchise rematch understanding that myths are cyclical in their nature. For Cavill he'll keep his cape on and save the world as the modern sun god Superman, in Zack Synder's MAN OF STEEL (2012 AD) before considering a return to the story of endless war. An old story that remains true.
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