Review: 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE

Hard bodies, CGI gut-spilling, and historically butchered storytelling await those with a desire to view this insipid follow-up to 2007’s breakout hit 300.

In 2007, director Zack Snyder had somewhat of a surprise hit on his hands when he released his filmic adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300.  It was a puffed-up machismo blood-fest featuring striking monochromatic comic book-influenced photography, a blend of historical and mythological storytelling, and gargantuan bare-chested men spouting unforgettable dialogue such as the endlessly quotable, “This is Sparta!”  It was as single-minded and testosterone-driven as an action movie could get, but it had style in spades which lent it a sort of absurd artistic credibility.  Despite that at the end of the picture every main character had died, due to its large financial gains it was assumed that a sequel would be in the works.  Now, seven years later, a prequel/sequel/companion piece hybrid has emerged from the depths of Hades to provide audiences with another 2-hour butchering of historical perspective, with double the amount of CGI bloodletting and triple the amount of unintended homoeroticism.

The plot of 300: Rise of an Empire, such as it is, revolves around Greek General Themistocles of Athens (played with uniquely bland appeal by Sullivan Stapleton) singlehandedly uniting the factions of Greece to defeat the evil Persian Empire in the decisive Battle of Salamis.  Sure, there is a bit more to it than that as the story also revolves around the previous film’s plot of the 300 Spartans who gave their lives to defend their homeland, but 300: Rise of an Empire doesn’t care about plot and neither should we.  All that is here is heavy-handed voiceover exposition mashed-up with violent wordless montages and numerous shots of rippling abs soaked in crimson.  As for the characters, there aren’t any.  Yes, there are faces and names up on the screen but they aren’t given any sort of defining characteristic or development.  Instead, the film is content to let their trim, yet ripped, bodies do all the work through endless slow-motion hacking and slashing (a trick Snyder used often but effectively in the first film – here, used by director Noam Murro, it enters the land of gross parody).  Perhaps these Greeks are more health-inclined, but they don’t measure up to the statuesque beefed-up bimbos of the first film in either attitude or physique.

The lone performance worth paying any attention to is that of Eva Green (a tragically underused actress) who plays the leader of King Xerxes’s Persian army, Artemisia, with a tongue-in-cheek gonzo appeal.  She struts seductively, decapitates with a blood-thirsty grin, grimaces in peering close-ups, and attacks with a sexual ferocity the film sorely needs and lacks whenever she isn’t on screen (though it is a real shame that the filmmakers result to her getting naked to exude real power).  She also seems to be the only actor in the production with any knowledge of the trash she is appearing in and plays it to the hilt.  Perhaps that is a bit unfair to Lena Headey, who returns to the franchise as Queen Gorgo of the Spartans and lends the film an air of knowing self-importance.  Unfortunately, she wasn’t all that memorable in the first 300 and here it appears that she is more or less riffing on her fantastic portrayal of Cersei in HBO’s Game of Thrones.  But what exactly is Westeros doing in Ancient Greece in the first place?  Not all fantasies are created equal.

Relative newcomer Murro (he has one other film directing credit to his name according to IMDB) appears content to follow Snyder’s directorial handbook to the letter.  He does get to open this film up a bit with a few naval battles which feature the same monotonous shots of boats pummeling into each other again and again, but for the most part it’s the same tricks with a different name attached.  Of course, that’s the way the studio probably wanted it. After all, why tinker with a proven money-making formula when your audience isn’t expecting high art to begin with?  And that is precisely 300: Rise of an Empire’s problem – there is no risk involved and little artistic integrity.  This sequel may have been given a higher budget, but that doesn’t make it feel any less vacant, aggressively stupid, deceptively homophobic, or blatantly sexist.

Grade: D-

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