Probably the greatest thing about Zach Snyder’s 300 besides hearing Leonidas (Gerard Butler, with his CGI enhanced six-pack abs) vociferously proclaim, “This … is … Sparta!” and kick one of Xerxes’s emissaries down a bottomless well, was the hip, infectious trailer of half-naked Spartan warriors assailing the vast Persian army to the manic techno beat of Nine Inch Nails’s “Just as You Imagined.” The movie itself was overload, more of the same, slowed by plot, reason and redundancy. Plus it’s history, so it’s not like you’re going to have a “I didn’t see that coming” moment, even with Frank Miller’s graphic novel, Xerxes, driving the game.
With 300: Rise of an Empire, you pretty much get the same thing, except a slightly different slice of history and that kick-ass thrumping song that the Game-Boy trailer’s cut to, happens to be Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” The plus is that you can see all the computerized arterial spray in 3D, and I’d recommend that you do so, especially to see Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro returning to the role) perched atop a sky-high ziggurat and looking out over the hordes of his minions—if you have a twinge of acrophobia, your stomach will likely flutter or something more acute. The minus is that the script, written in part by Snyder, is porn-flick awful. “You fight harder than you fuck,” Artemisia (Eva Gaëlle Green from Casino Royale) snarls at Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) during combat, and earlier, when Themistocles ventures to Sparta to enlist their remaining warriors’ swords after their 300 guard has fallen, he’s besieged by Leonidas’s wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey). “Are you just going to stand there with your cock in your hand,” she snaps while he watches Spartan men grapple viciously.
Poor Themistocles, women everywhere are sexually harassing him, and the stodgy old guard in Athens wants to acquiesce to the oncoming Persians.
Rise of an Empire’s storyline takes a long time to sort out. Part of that’s because the action takes place before, during and after 300’s testosterone-fueled battle of Thermopylae, and the film does everything to avoid showing Butler’s mug. (His image is scantly used and he’s not listed in the cast.) The preamble, delivered with histrionic flare by Queen Gorgo, sets the stage for the long brewing Graeco-Persian conflict, recalling Themistocles’s victory over Xerxes’s father, Darius, at Marathon some ten years earlier and the boy’s subsequent rise to power, aided by the witchy Artemisia who assassinates any and all in the path of her quest to transform the malleable lad into a war-mongering “god-king” intent on the annihilation of the Greek empire which was responsible for (and atrociously so) the demise of her kin.
The historic web of hate and revenge runs deep and gets played up to its theatrical fullest. Artemisia, clearly not impeded by any glass-ceiling, helms the Persian navy and for the bulk of Rise of an Empire engages in a bloody maritime game of chess with Themistocles, pitting the bravado and might of the Persians against the cunning ranginess of the outmanned Athenians.
The film’s director, Israeli born Noam Murro, whose most notable other credit is Smart People, is hardly noticeable, or I should say, he carries on Snyder’s exact fingerprint as if it were Snyder behind the lens. Given that, there’s the requisite ludicrous sex scene as well as the brilliant combat choreography embossed and underscored by slo-mo so you can see sword sever ligament and limb in graphic detail, or watch an intrepid warrior, blade brandished overhead, hurl himself off a cliff and float downward, as if a feather, to the deck of an enemy ship, where the camera snaps back to realtime just in time for head-bashing stroke. And of course, there’s plenty of CGI-rendered metropolises, war elephants and galleons—so much so that the brilliance of one gets lost in the vast overuse. Xerxes, too, seems to have gotten a digital upgrade as well, appearing more buff and formidable than the angry eunuch he was in 300. In this “companion” sequel he looms so large and imposing over men, he calls to mind the large blue Dr. Manhattan from Snyder’s under-appreciated Watchman sans the luminous hue and awash in gaudy gold glitz.
Much of the silliness of Rise of an Empire can’t be faulted on Green or Stapleton—they’re trapped in two-dimensional roles inside an arcade game movie. Sword and sandal epics have fared far better when putting character first. (Take Spartacus or Gladiator, or even Neil Marshall’s gritty mini-epic, Centurion.)
As far as history goes, and the box office dictates, there’s plenty of room for a sequel. The ending almost commands it. In another eight years, we’re likely to see 300: Xerxes, Bigger, Better, More Berserk.
Director: Noam Murro
Writer: Zach Snyder, Kurt Johnstad
Starring: Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro, Sullivan Stapleton, Lena Headey, Jack O’Connell
Release Date: Mar. 6, 2014