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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review - 300: Rise of an Empire

I'm about to admit to having seen 300: Rise of an Empire
I hope you're all happy at what you've made me do. 

Congratulations, Gerard Butler - I can finally say with all honesty that a movie needs more Gerard Butler.  I never imagined the day would come.  Years have passed since you made a major splash in 300, years in which you whittled away any good will you might have had from that film, but your time has finally come.  Because it turns out that you were a weird, angry cog in the machine that made 300 run.  Your replacement, Sullivan Stapleton, lacks your manic charisma, or any charisma at all.  Introduced as a man so utterly bad-ass that he blocks swords and arrows with his goddamn head, Stapleton has two modes of acting: 'Shouting' and 'shouting louder'.  In a movie full of failings, Stapleton's casting as Greek hero Themistokles is among the worst of them.

The best actor present is almost certainly Eva Green, and if there's any reason to watch the film at all, it is unquestionably just to relish in Green's performance.  Green plays Artemisia, a Greek woman enslaved by Greeks in her childhood, abused, and left for dead - or to be rescued by a kindhearted Persian ambassador who is it turns out the only actual human being in that entire damn empire.  Artemisia is the engineer of Xerxes' invasion of Greece, and his most brutally effective general... and, if I'm being honest, there is no good reason why this film is not about her.  She has a backstory; Themistokles does not.  She has character; Themistokles does not.  She has a sense of style; Themistokles does not.  And she gets the best one-liners.  But she is not, alas, a bro, and thus, she is unfit to lead this bro-iest of all action vehicles.

Every single problem with the original 300 is magnified tenfold here.  Zack Snyder's tendency to speed-ramp combat was an occasional frustration in the first movie, but Snyder at least attempted to develop a rhythm to the editing; journeyman director Noam Murro is clearly aping Snyder's style without understanding how or why it works.  The Battle of Marathon is particularly egregious.  At one point, and I can't be sure of this, but I'm pretty sure Murro speed-ramped a particular blow during a scene in which he was already speed-ramping.  The speed-ramping serves to highlight how fake the blood is and how inhuman some of the fight choreography is, as the film uses some of the ugliest CGI I've ever seen in a mainstream release. 

And I think the script uses the word 'freedom' or 'free' roughly 50 times, hitting a low mark early on when the first Persian invasion of Greece is explained by claiming that Darius hates the freedom of the Greek people and will stop at nothing to remove its nobility from the world.  This last one is particularly hilarious, as the film repeatedly emphasizes how noble the Greeks are, cutting between the Persians' slave-powered ships and the Greeks' generous, well-oiled countryman-powered ships, seemingly forgetting that the backstory of one of the film's major characters is that her family was raped and murdered by Greeks so that she could become a Greek ship's rape-slave for a decade.  This is not portrayed as a surprising event, either, so there's some cognitive dissonance in hearing the Greeks wax high-school-poetic on the beauty of their freedoms.  I wish I could say that was the worst of it; it's hard to find a true low-point when the film is living this far below sea level.

Which is unfortunate, because, as with the first film, they're working with a killer story.  The Battle of Marathon, the naval battles of Artemisium and Salamis - hell, the scope of this film is no less than the entire Second Persian Invasion of Greece, which the film doesn't even manage to finish, just kind of... ending, eventually.  Snyder, who co-wrote the movie with Kurt Johnstad, lets the pacing and characterization slip away so that the scenes of people riding horses through grass can be shot extra slow.  It rushes from point to point without reason or explanation, and then stops seemingly when it gets bored.

Like 300, the action is stacked significantly against the Greeks, far more than it had necessarily been in real life, in order to make for more thrilling set-pieces.  Unfortunately, Snyder's visual style (as aped by Murro) doesn't work quite as well for naval combat as it did for one-on-forty ground combat, though they try hard to make it so.  When they do find a sequence that works, it works quite well - the Battle of Artemisium has a number of stunning visuals, for example.  The film's final battle starts off strong, too, but by the time we reach the end of it, Themistokles is fighting something like 15 Immortals by himself and winning with little effort, and whatever small tension the film had simply... deflates.  There are many sins fans of 300 are willing to forgive if the movie has truly excellent action sequences; 300: Rise of an Empire could use some of that forgiveness, but it never earns it.

300: Rise of an Empire mostly trades the rampant racism of the first film for rampant sexism; it seems the only things that frightens the bros behind this film more than dark-skinned men is women in authority.  There is, consequently, a significant amount of rape.  Background rape, backstory rape, casual rape.  And while in actual history, Artemisia was a reasonable commander - indeed, one of the only ones in the Persian military who recognized the Greek trap that ultimately defeated them - here, she is a hotheaded, rage-driven fool who damns her army to get back at a man who scorned her.  While these traits periodically comes out in interesting ways - a mid-film bout of combat sex between Artemisia and Themistokles is the goofy highlight of the entire thing - for the bulk of the film, I mostly just wanted to apologize for having a penis, as though this were somehow all my fault.

Stupid, mean-spirited, offensive patriotism porn with CGI so egregiously bad it couldn't be anything other than a stylistic decision (I hope), 300: Rise of an Empire is in no way worth watching.  Except... sometimes it is.  It's weirdly watchable at times, even if it lacks the violent staccato rhythms of Zack Snyder's superior meathead original.  Credit Eva Green, I think, whose unhinged charisma is a joy to behold, because the film comes alive whenever she's on screen.  Or credit the general lack of sword-and-sandal military epics, a lost genre that deserves a better memorial than this but probably won't get one.  Fans of the original probably won't get bored and those of you looking for a modern exploitation flick don't have many other options, but I can't imagine the audience for this film is going to stretch too far beyond 'teenage boys'.

Rating: D+
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