300: Rise of an Empire (2014)
In 2007, the gory, shouty, beefcake-y action flick 300 came out of relative nowhere and took the world by storm, earning over $400 million worldwide and launching the careers of Gerard Butler and director Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Watchmen). The movie burrowed itself into pop culture, readily mocked and parodied along with its highly stylized action. So where to go next? Also based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, though one that is incomplete as of release, 300: Rise of an Empire is a return to the same stylized excess that made careers. Except now seven years later, what once dazzled seems empty; visually alluring but hollow by all accounts.
Following the brave stand of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is pushing forward with his plans to subjugate the city-states of Greece. Long ago, Themistokles (Sullivan Stepleton) killed King Darius during Persia’s first invasion attempt. Xerxes has sworn vengeance since, goaded into action by his second-in-command, general Artemisia (Eva Green). She commands Xerxes’ mighty naval fleet, and she looks to “dance across the backs of dead Greeks.” The many city-states of Greece are squabbling over an appropriate response; Themistokles argues they should unite, while others contend for surrender to Xerxes. Themistokles rallies what armies and ships he can to meet the Persians on the sea and prevent the overpowering invasion.
The difficulty with a follow-up to 300 is that Snyder’s highly stylized original has been copied and pasted so many times by cheap imitators, so what’s new? The film’s visual style follows the original closely, all those gauzy panoramas and human bodies lovingly showcasing in slow-mo the ugly beauty of bloodshed and violence. The rippling muscles, the glistening sweat, the geysers of blood; it’s all here and in displayed in fawning 3D detail. I didn’t see the film in 3D, but I noticed that every campfire scene was littered with annoying floating embers. However, Rise of an Empire manages some pleasant surprises because a majority of its action takes place at sea. This is a movie devoted to ancient maritime combat, and that’s pretty interesting. The scope of the action is much larger this time, with far more than 300 soldiers in play. The naval battles are brought to life with Hollywood excess but they’re still fairly exciting and fun to watch. The action is well orchestrated, usually easy enough to follow, and suitably thrilling, with each sequence differing from the last. The pumping score by Junkie XL works as a strong driving force with pounding percussion and horns (check out “History of Artemisia”). There are also less nutty monstrous evil henchmen this go-round as well, which helps bring a needed sense of internal reality to all the fantastical action. There are no goat people and blade-handed executioners this time. I don’t think anybody is going to take the movie to task for historical accuracy, but it’s appreciated all the same. Though who’s going to hire Blade Hands now? The guy has a very limited skill set for a workplace.
Plot-wise, the first 300 film was an underdog tale, a group of proud warriors fighting against overwhelming odds eventually giving their lives for the cause. It’s an early chapter in the Noble Lost Cause storytelling playbook, meant to inspire. It’s a Greek Alamo. The problem is when you pick up the story after the Noble Lost Cause. Now the Greeks have to fight the whole of Xerxes’ mighty forces with their own, and while it’s still an underdog story at its core, watching one huge army fight a huger army doesn’t have the same entertainment value. That may be why the film also works as a prequel. There are three flashbacks to fill out the first act’s worth of table setting: the initial war with Persia, Xerxes, and Artemisia. We get storylines happening concurrently with Leonidas and his men, though Gerard Butler declined to reappear in the film. You definitely miss his animalistic fire and screen presence. Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s much of a story here besides a big-screen version of Stratego, where the Greeks move, then the Persians, now everyone is dead or defeated. That’s a glib oversimplification, yes, but the plot boils down to an increasing series of episodes on how the Greeks repel the Persian invaders. Without greater characters and storylines to populate the downtime, it all becomes soulless exercises in CGI bloodshed chasing after whatever is cool looking.
The big problem with 300: Rise of an Empire, despite the ever-present sameness of it all, is that the heroes are bland and the villains are charismatic, which makes it easier to root for the bad guys, which I heartily did. The heroes are chiseled from the blandest of hunks of one-note characterization, with only three real characters being formed. There’s Leader Guy a.k.a. Themistokles, who wants to unite Greece into one power. There’s Father, a.k.a Scyllias, who has a slight scar on his jaw to better identify him, and then there’s his Son, a.k.a. Calisto, who wants to fight. Ladies and gentlemen, that is it, which is all you get when it comes to your heroes. What a shameful pittance. There aren’t even flamboyant supporting characters in their ranks. The heroes are boring, and the father/son storyline plays out exactly as you’d expect, which is a reverse from the original 300. These are not characters you’d follow into uncertain danger. These are characters leftover after all the good ones have been prematurely slain. These are some lackluster leftovers.
Now, let’s take a look at the enemy camp, namely with chief antagonist, Artemisia. It helps leaps and bounds that she is played by Eva Green (Casino Royale, Dark Shadows), and it’s even more helpful that Green gives it her all, sinking her teeth into the campy villainy. Artemisia is a fierce sword fighter, no-nonsense general, and overall badass supreme. She kisses decapitated heads, is not above fighting topless, and wears wicked outfits with spikes and all sorts of goodies. Every time she departs a scene, you’re left counting down the minutes until you see her again. She’s so delightfully entertaining, chomping at the bit for vengeance and Greek blood. She’s also a woman commanding warships in 500 BC, not exactly a time that recognized women as equals. Another wrong move on the filmmakers’ part was illuminating Artemisia’s back-story. We learn via flashback that Artemisia watched her family get raped and slaughtered by the Greeks. She was sold into sexual slavery at a young age, imprisoned in the bowels of a Greek ship, repeatedly raped for years. Then when these horrible men had had their fill, she was dumped onto an anonymous road and left to die. After seeing this sequence, what person isn’t going to welcome Artemisia? Does she not deserve her vengeance? I was emotionally engaged with her from that moment onward, and so I rooted for her to burn Greece down and vanquish our lame heroes.
The rest of the actors on screen are rather bad. The beefy men on screen could have used some extra work on their underutilized acting muscles. Stapleton (Gangster Squad, TV’s Strike Back) is absent any notable charisma to distinguish him from the stubbly-bearded pack of screaming male heroes. Santoro (The Last Stand) has a certain dour intensity to him, though he spends much of the film watching from a distance. The rest of the cast doesn’t even merit mentioning because the film treats them like featured extras rather than genuine characters. Only Lena Headey’s (TV’s Game of Thrones, The Purge) handful of scenes will grab your attention. It’s ironic that a film that glorifies the heroics of male soldiers, as well as the their chiseled physiques, and the only two women in the entire film are easily the most memorable and entertaining people. Dump the dudes.
While it offers enough thrills and visual power to satisfy a trial viewing, 300: Rise of an Empire is just too empty a spectacle to warrant anything beyond a cursory glance. Director Noam Murro follows Snyder’s blueprint to the best of his abilities, soaking the screen in blood, rippling flesh, and visual grandeur, but the movie goes into convulsions when somebody is forced to talk without kicking people in the face. The plot amounts to little more than a series of attacks played out like stages in a video game. While the original is no masterwork, at least it had characters that we could gravitate toward. Absent any hero worth rooting for, it’s no wonder that Green and her memorable villain reign supreme. She is excellent and has a reasonable motivation for her vengeance. If it had been her movie, 300: Rise of an Empire might have developed into a worthy spectacle anchored by its fiery heroine. Alas, the actual movie is just a Saved by the Bell: The New Class of half-naked men going off to CGI battle, and that’s just not enough.
Nate’s Grade: C+