“War! War! War!” So King Leonidas’ 300 Spartans chanted as the battle cry of men that were sculpted to kill. They were built to brutalize. They were bred to maim. As anyone who saw the original 300 knows, they fulfilled their purpose. In one spectacular single-take sequence, time is warped to the rhythm of curved steel blades separating flesh from flesh. Blood smears the screen in explosions of comic book violence to punctuate the mayhem—the radical idea of slowing down time to intensify the buildup to a kill and to speed it up as the blade meets its mark. It’s crude but cathartic, and it follows the tradition of using slow motion in action movies that was partially begun by Akira Kurosawa in Seven Samurai. Such devices were used with a wink and a smile, and self-seriousness wasn’t ever one of 300‘s problems. Writer and director Zack Snyder knew better (although he didn’t on last year’s Man of Steel), and he understood Frank Miller’s graphic novel. Testosterone and manliness became satire, with the camera worshiping bulging pectorals, six pack abs, bouncing breasts, and, of course, buckets blood. It was a violent homo-erotic joke that, at the time, entertained. It began with a chest pumping montage: the grueling and barbarous training of each and every Spartan destined for battle. Like most I suspect, I recognized I couldn’t ever pass a test such as this on my own, and that kindled a feeling of deserved admiration for the towering heroes that are our good guys. This was 2006. Seven years later, I unsuspectingly found myself in an environment that rivaled that of Leonidas’ 300 hardened Spartans. It was an exercise equally as ruthless, and to some, even more sadistic, that demanded tremendous physical and mental discipline. I had to stay awake during 300: Rise of an Empire.
This is as clear an example of studio greed as any, where they manufacture sequels, prequels, and ...whatever this is... (more on that in a minute) as though they’re merely products on an assembly line. Artistic integrity is the last consideration. The movie business is still a business, one of the most lucrative in the world, but there still remains a thin veneer of romanticism for the movies. Films like 300: Rise of an Empire consume that feeling with the artificial corporatism of Hollywood. The irony is that the script, written once again by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, is actually pretty good. The story came from Frank Miller, who’s set to make and release the graphic novel version of this film. Instead of Sparta, the prime location in Rise of an Empire is Athens. And, instead of Gerard Butler’s charismatic turn as King Leonidas, we have Sullivan Stapleton (who?) as Athenian general Themistocles. It’s not that he’s less buff or less charismatic, it’s that he’s just less. As a nearly naked speech-giving general that slashes and cuts and pierces and yells, he has to “bring it.” He doesn’t. In Rise of an Empire’s opening montage that seemed to span longer the film’s running time, we find out Themistocles shot the arrow that killed the Persian commander. His son? The future god-king, and we find out how he went from mere man to self-celebrated divinity. Xerxes sets out to exact revenge, and it’s up to Themistocles to rally the Greek nations together and defeat him.
There’s slightly more story than that, giving it a narrative edge to Snyder’s 300. It doesn’t count for much, but in more capable hands it could have. Rise of an Empire aspires to deliver a true sense of scale on multiple levels: political, city, state, and in battle. None are well developed, and dependence between them is never believably developed. Oh, there’s plenty of dialogue repeatedly exclaiming town A has to be with town G so that towns B and C help, but problems X, Y, and Z are in the way. This is one of the films gravest mistakes-- the story exists as a separate entity to the action. By all accounts this should be a non-issue, since the action/story ratio strongly favors one over the other. But the action is static, lifeless, and altogether uninspired. Although the action scenes in 300 became instantly iconic, their reproductions have almost universally been loathed. This is sometimes referred to by critics as “The Matrix Problem,” where the action within The Matrix was justified by its exaggerated setting, but it wouldn’t make sense in the real world. In other words, we had an excuse for kung-fu ridiculousness that let the crazy become thrilling. Rise of an Empire obviously takes place in the same setting as 2006’s 300, but it never feels like the same world. This is because Rise of an Empire embellishes every quality of 300 to the point of incohesion. It’s too comic and too somber, too risible and too dour. As a consequence, the action scenes are an empty rehash of what was mastered 7 years prior.
More misguided than the monotonous “Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?” action scenes are the attempts to make audiences care about the characters. Great action exposition, usually in the first ten minutes, tells you everything you need to know about your hero. Look to Gladiator, where over the film’s opening act (even first five or ten minutes) you understand his feelings, his desires, what he believes in, what he doesn’t, and ultimately what he fights for. You get a tangible sense of who he is as a person. It’s incredibly easy to go along with him on his journey because he’s such a well-established character. Other than “FIGHT FOR GREECE! I AM A SYMBOL OF MASCULINITY!” Themistocles seemingly doesn’t want or care about anything. Unlike Leonidas who intimately said goodbye to his wife before leaving, Themistocles doesn’t have a family. He doesn’t want one. Worse still, he’s not any given parameters for change, or even room for the audience to get to know him as a character. As far as I know, there’s nothing to get to know. He’s meat, and not even a prime cut. He’s spam. To be fair, one of the most (read: ONLY) enjoyable parts of the film is his skills as a tactician, and what new strategy he’ll employ towards the invading Persian army.
By dancing around the events of the first film, the typical problems that plague unnecessary franchise films are avoided, but that doesn’t stop 300 from being a bore. The bland, copycat direction of the film can’t be blamed on director Noam Murro, since, other than the poorly received comedy film Smart People, he’s never directed a major feature. If a major project is handed to you, a nearly nameless director, how can you refuse? I don’t blame him. But he doesn’t have the skills to ignite a spark a hundredth as powerful as the film’s smallest explosion. No, blame lies with the studio, or whoever thought it prudent to assign a largely talentless filmmaker an expensive major studio project. After all, who cares if it’s good as long as the director’s cheap!
Luckily, Eva Green is spectacular as Xerxes’ military leader. She is the film. She’s the price of your ticket. And, if the film didn’t otherwise suck the life out of you, and her, it would make 300: Rise of an Empire worth seeing. She dominates the screen with sizzling campy goodness, and even when the character falls into comic book villain cliché, like killing anyone who disappoints her (though, with generals this stupid, you could hardly blame her for tossing them off the sides of her ships), you can’t help but crack a guilty grin. The same is true for the movie’s best scene: a rage fueled sex scene that’s the film’s most honest and exciting moment. Good on Green, bad on everything else.