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300: Rise of an Empire
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by Brett Gallman

"Dulce et decorum est, indeed."
4 stars

Like its predecessor, "300: Rise of an Empire" deserves credit for taking unseemly material (the glorification of war, macho posturing, xenophobia) and wrapping it up in such an enthralling package that the bad taste hardly registers.

I daresay it makes ancient conflict look awesome, a notion that's contrary to everything we actually know about war, which is a hellish, blood-soaked ordeal. But in the world of "300," crimson sprays like cartoonish ribbons and rarely spatters on the victors, who often emerge as glistening, bronzed demigods no worse for wear. It's almost enough to convince me to suit up, even though I know propaganda films are bullshit.

I suppose it helps that the films are about nine steps removed from reality and firmly entrenched in a comic book aesthetic despite their footing in a historical conflict between Persia and Greece. "Rise of an Empire" returns viewers to the bloody aftermath of the Battle of Thermopylae, the famous tiff that left the ground littered with so many Spartans and Persians. Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) has rallied what's left of the Spartan troops and begins to relate the backstory of the war, at which point the narrative begins to pinball around the events of the first film.

Initially functioning as a prequel, "Rise of an Empire" introduces Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), the Athenian hero who unwittingly fanned the flames of war by sending an arrow through King Darius's chest. Rather than finish the king's lineage completely, he allows son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) to ascend to the throne, a decision that doesn't seem to be too ominous considering the kid's an ineffectual emo. Darius's naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) sees this weakness as an opening to take vengeance on the Greeks and convinces Xerxes to wander the desert on a vision quest that transforms him into the gangly, pompous God-king that will one day ravage Greece.

Most of the film then acts as a parallel sequel that retraces the original film's steps and fills in a few of its blanks by revealing what the Athenians were up to while Leonidas marched to the Hot Gates. Dismissed as feeble Nancy boys in the original film, the Athenians here are level-headed strategists looking to unite all of Greece to fight off Persia. For a while, it seems to be a calculated shift in perspective that allows "Rise of an Empire" to critique the uncomfortable politics of the first movie because the Spartans come off as hard-headed assholes, which is exactly what you'd take away from "300" if it didn't distract you with spear-chucking and Gerard Butler kicking dudes down bottomless pits and making it look sweet.

But this time around, things are a little more sobering, at least for a while: Themistocles is more of a sensitive, reluctant warrior type who hates to see his friends die on the battlefield. Generally speaking, he's not nearly the hard-ass his Spartan counterpart is, and the difference between the two city-states is reflected in their soldiers: the Athenians' beards aren't quite as full, nor are their abs as chiseled (they'll still make you feel plenty inadequate, though). They don light blue garments as opposed to charging in the battle draped in crimson. Most of them are self-admitted amateurs at war and are more comfortable with being artisans.

If "300" is the deranged, two-fisted descent into the horrors of war, then "Rise of an Empire" briefly feels like the hangover that occasionally considers those horrors. The film seems to paint Sparta as a bullish, rogue city-state that would have been better off serving a greater cause rather than selfishly pining for meat-headed glory. It's an interesting course correction and revision while it lasts because it allows you to enjoy the "300" flavor without the awkward, disconcerting aftertaste.

But it doesn't last, as eventually the Athenians take up Sparta's mantle and engage in multiple suicide missions as their Greek brothers become martyrs in a war that features pretenses of ideological disputes whenever Themistocles invokes the need to preserve democracy in the face of Middle-Eastern tyranny. Such demarcations make it tough to ignore the obvious allegory, especially when the script works in ancient rewordings of Bush-era epithets ("we don't negotiate with terrorists," "they hate us for our freedom"). When it was released in 2007, Zack Snyder's film obviously echoed the War in Iraq, another ill-advised military engagement that pit western civilization against the Middle East, and it's not much of a stretch to consider "300" an allegory that doubles as a troubling Bush apologia.

Seven years later, this naturally changes the context, as "Rise of the Empire" resists strict allegory by embracing the silly comic bookiness of it all and infusing it with some old fashioned ancient legend. Here, the Greco-Persian Wars are boiled down to the stuff of heightened mythology and reduced to a revenge tale that doesn't have as much metaphorical resonance. In this respect, it might be more enjoyable than "300" because it's easier to brush aside its occasional politics and and bask in the badass stuff, like Themistocles riding a steed through a flaming ship.

Needless to say, the film retains the house style that made "300" the film that launched a thousand inferior knock-offs. Music video director Noam Murrow finds himself in the tough and slightly ironic position of impersonating Snyder's aesthetic. Snyder has been criticized for his slavish adaptations in the past, as if it were somehow easy to just conjure up a comic book film just because it provides a visual template, an argument that conveniently ignores the terrible adaptations out there. Likewise, it's easy to assume that Murrow need only to karaoke a familiar tune; however, even the likes of Tarsem Singh have had difficulty with doing that, so credit is due to Murrow for nailing it.

His pantomime nearly flawlessly recreates the look of the original film, from the otherworldly, CGI-canvas backdrops to the speed-ramping. Murrow especially can't resist indulging the latter, but it's forgivable since he really wants to highlight the severed limbs, the flaming spears, and the dudes bombing through flaming, sinking ships while riding a horse (I cannot stress that enough--Hollywood, if you're listening, MORE CRAZY NAVAL-EQUESTERIAN WARFARE, PLEASE). "Rise of an Empire" works where many Snyder imitators failed because Murrow balances the frenzy with fluidity; his action sequences are jittery and frenetic but also represent remarkably controlled chaos. You're left breathless without feeling like you missed anything as these Greeks and Persians rip each other limb from limb.

"Rise of an Empire" obviously doubles down on the nutty, cock-eyed interpretation of Ancient Greece, which is just as awesomely homoerotic and gleefully violent as ever. "300" was often too severe to tread on camp, but this follow-up has no problem with sidling right up to the kitschy implications, even going so far as to provide honest-to-god moments of levity.

And if the film dangles right on that precipice, Green comes along and kicks it right over with a ravenous, scenery-devouring turn that positions Artemisia as a Wile E. Coyote of sorts whose plans to capture the Athenians are foiled by incompetent henchmen. Things only get better once she's had enough of that shit and opts for a more hands-on approach with Themistocles that ends with the two hate-screwing in wild fashion (though it's still arguably not the weirdest sex scene Green's been involved in, bless her).

It's a scene that's destined to become the film's infamous calling-card--we're talking that pool scene from "Showgirls" levels of hysterics here. However, the rendezvous is actually a critical moment that subverts the sausage-fest that is "300," as Green never relinquishes control of the film as Artemisia, a Greek turncoat seeking revenge on her homeland after its warriors left her an orphan and proceeded to employ her as a sex slave into her teenage years. She's not only the film's center of gravity but also its faint conscience that calls Greece out on its own savagery. I wish the film were more willing to engage these shades of grey rather than hustle back to the dichotomous viewpoint of the original, where the Greeks are Badass Good Guys and the Persians Evil Foreign Interlopers, but it's an intriguing subtext, particularly when you consider her place as the puppet master behind Xerxes (who all but disappears for long stretches).

"Rise of an Empire" almost demands that it becomes the text because its greatest failing is its inability to provide a foil for Green, who chews everyone up and spits them right back out. Stapleton is serviceable as the lead Athenian, but I could easily imagine him being switched out with the horde of faceless Greeks surrounding him. By lacking Butler's conviction and forceful personality, he leaves a void that would seem intentional if he weren't so clearly meant to become Leonidas-lite by the end of the film. Then again, even Butler's Leonidas would have wilted in Green's radioactive wattage. Hot gates, indeed.

That there's a lot to enjoy about "Rise of an Empire" seems strange because, again, "300" feels like it should be unpleasant. These films are almost archaic throwbacks that imagine dying in battle to be the pinnacle of glory and reduce its soldiers to dutiful cogs in a war machine, which is anathema to any sane person. Luckily, Snyder is a madman who is able to convey that sentiment without irony and does it with such vigor and visual splendor that he coerces you into marching along to the beat.

"Rise of an Empire" carries that tune admirably as a follow-up that's only lesser in certain parts; as a whole, however, it's a cool B-side that toys with the themes of the original before it also eventually falls in line to provide everything that's expected of a "300" movie. A dutiful solider, it is.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23659&reviewer=429
originally posted: 03/08/14 02:52:13
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User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell sorry sequel stick with the original 1 stars
11/10/14 KingNeutron The constant dust motes in the air got pretty tiresome, but Eva Green was great 3 stars
6/09/14 feef Better than the first film, which isn't saying much, but entertaining 3 stars
5/26/14 Richard Brandt Eva Green makes this movie something more than a rehash 3 stars
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  07-Mar-2014 (R)
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