Mark Reviews Movies

300: Rise of an Empire


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Noam Murro

Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Heady, Hans Matheson, Callan Muley, Rodrigo Santoro, David Wenham

MPAA Rating: R (for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language)

Running Time: 1:42

Release Date: 3/7/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 6, 2014

The original 300 was something of a qualified success but still a notable one. The film took the graphic novel by Frank Miller, which combined history and fantasy, and not only accurately adapted the source material's visual sense but also translated its bombast through stunning digital effects and backdrops, over-the-top performances, and a unique rhythm that made the extensive fights a sort of brutal and bloody ballet. One might argue that the film was more the product of Miller than director Zack Snyder, who merely copied Miller's work panel-by-panel, but that would suggest the comic and film arts are somehow interchangeable, which, of course, they are not. Furthering the counterargument, here is 300: Rise of an Empire.

It is also based on a Miller comic series about the Greco-Persian Wars, but the movie does not even approach half the level of barbaric intensity or pictorial grandeur of its predecessor. It tries incredibly hard to do this, too. Director Noam Murro, who does not have the advantage of a completed comic series (Miller is still working on it), has the thankless task of aping Snyder's aesthetic (Snyder co-wrote this screenplay with Kurt Johnstad) without bringing anything new to the table aside from the story's different setting.

Whereas the first film offered a dynamic variety of settings (the golden glory of Sparta, the stormy mountain of the oracle, the washed-out plateau of Thermopylae), this one is set primarily in a generically dark and dingy world. No matter where the specific location may be, whether it's the rocky terrain of Marathon or the expanse of the Aegean Sea, the movie maintains that rather unappealing appearance. Even the blood, which flows—gushes, really, like a severe arterial wound no matter where a blade or fist lands—frequently, is closer to the color and fluidity of ink or oil. That the overwhelming majority of the movie has the actors once again in front of green screens does not help, either, given that, at best, the backdrops look unconvincing or, at worst, jarringly unnatural.

The narrative serves as a prequel and a sequel, while providing a central plot that runs concurrently to the events of the previous film, and yes, the result is as unfocused as it sounds. With King Leonidas of Sparta dead (Even though the character is alive for most of the story, it is quite funny listening to characters dance around the fact that Gerard Butler is not in the movie, with his character off doing this or that to cover for it) at the feet of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the Persian emperor, Leonidas' widow Gorgo (Lena Headey) decides to explain to her troops something the likely already know: the story of why Persia has it in for Greece. The new heroes here are the dull Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the champion of Marathon who killed Xerxes' father with a perfectly loosed arrow, and his band of Athenian brothers who have even less personality than their leader.

There's an attempt to humanize the villains, who were nothing more than the personification of evil in the first film. Xerxes, driven mad by the death of his father and the desire to live up to the former emperor's impossible expectations, goes off on a journey to become a god. He does, bathing in a pool of concentrated evil to become a towering god-king who is, well, once again the personification of evil. The attempt is refreshing at first until we get to the end result, which makes the entire enterprise to make these villains human pointless.

The same goes for Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek-born general and commander of the Persian navy whose family was slaughtered by a rival Greek city-state before her eyes and who became a sex slave for her conquerors before a traveling Persian rescued her. Like Xerxes, any sympathy we might have for her is erased by the fact that her motive to destroy Greece is the essence of her character. Thankfully, Green, who understands the material better than any of the other actors on screen, is the embodiment of a punk-rock warrior goddess—at once dangerous and indescribably sexy. The performances in the preceding film relied almost entirely on yelling and growling, but Green internalizes that same level of intensity to great effect.

Everything that made the original film challenging is gone, too. Without the twofaced ideology of Sparta, which fights for the freedom to be a fascistic military state that inherently depends on robbing its citizens of their freedom, the movie's anachronistic ideas of liberty are as simple and redundant as its plot. It's only when the movie veers from what we've already seen, particularly the genuinely exciting sea battles that actually let us in on the strategy behind them (Although there is no explanation for the strategy of using a horse during one of them), that it starts to work.

Otherwise, 300: Rise of an Empire is an exercise in attempting to recreate as much as possible from its predecessor. What it can't reconstruct, though, is the energy that made that film work as well as it did in spite of itself.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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