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, is 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 an “I didn’t see that coming” moment.
With 300: Rise of an Empire you pretty much get the same thing, except a slightly different slice of history and that kick-ass song in the trailer 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.
The writing is not helped by the film’s frequent crude sexual references and come ons, like the time Artemisia (Eva Green from Casino Royale) snarls, “You fight harder than you fuck,” to Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Earlier in the film, Themistocles ventures to Sparta to enlist their remaining warriors’ swords after their 300 guard has fallen, and he’s besieged by Leonidas’ 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’ victory over Xerxes’ father, Darius, at Marathon some 10 years earlier. Xerxes’ subsequent rise to power was aided by the witchy Artemisia who assassinates any and all in 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 the largely forgotten 2008 comedy 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, Murro gives us brilliant combat choreography embossed and underscored by slo-mo so you can see a sword sever ligament and limb in graphic detail or watch an intrepid warrior hurl himself off a cliff and float downward to the deck of an enemy ship, where the camera snaps back to real time for a head bashing stroke. And of course, Rise of an Empire offers plenty of CGI-rendered metropolises, war elephants, and galleons, so much so that their brilliance gets lost in the vast overuse.
Much of the silliness of Rise of an Empire can’t lobbed off on Green or Stapleton — they’re trapped in two-dimensional roles inside an arcade game movie. Sword-and-sandal epics fare better when characters are put first. Take Spartacus and 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 to Rise of an Empire. The ending almost commands it. In another eight years, we’re likely to see 300: Xerxes, Bigger, Better, More Berserk.
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