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300: Rise of an Empire
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by Peter Sobczynski

"An Empire Among Other Things. . ."
2 stars

The original 2007 "300" was, at least to these eyes, a perfect example of a good news/bad news situation. The bad news was that the movie, an adaptation of the celebrated Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name, was utter garbage--an idiotic hodgepodge of flying limbs, spurting blood, superfluous nipples and even more superfluous plotting staged by uber-hack director Zack Snyder in an increasingly monotonous visual style that attempted to approximate the unique look of the source material but wound up looking more like an uninspired video game from start to finish. The good news is that even though the film's inexplicable box-office success allowed Snyder to go on to screw up such once-promising projects as "Watchmen" and "Man of Steel" while publicly talking shit about Terry Gilliam, a director whose weakest work blows any of Snyder's efforts out of the water without breaking a sweat, it seemed that since it ended with virtually all the key characters dead and a now-unified Greek army marching off to decimate the remaining Persian troops, the chances that there would one day be a sequel that I would one day have to endure seemed impossibly low.

Of course, when tons of potential box-office dollars are on the line, people are usually willing to dust off their thinking caps in order to brainstorm some presumably lucrative way of extending the brand. Using Miller's graphic novel "Xerxes" as a basis, we now have "300: Rise of an Empire," a film that isn't so much a sequel as it is a spin-off that happens to take place before, during, after and sometimes atop the previous film, a tactic usually employed by horror films trying to extend an unexpectedly popular stand-alone film into a franchise by any means necessary (see--better yet, don't--the sequels to "Saw," "Paranormal Activity" and "Insidious"). Once again, the resulting film is a good news/bad news situation with the bad news being that it is another tedious and overblown exercise in pseudo-macho posturing jam-packed with clanging swords, quasi-fascist posturing, dullard heroes, male nipplage a-plenty and enough spurting blood to earn the entire sorry enterprise a hemophilia diagnosis. The good news, however, is that it is slightly better than the original, due almost entirely to the contributions of co-star Eva Green, who almost makes it worth sitting through thanks to her standout performance as the chief villain.

Set in Athens as the events of "300" are occurring down the road in Thermopylae, "Rise of an Empire" follows Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) as he and his ragtag group of heavily oiled troops into battle against the forces of the power-crazed Persian leader Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) to prevent them from sacking the city on the way to dominating a throughly divided Greece. For both Xerxes and Themistokles, this battle is personal because 10 years earlier, during a previous battle between the two countries, the Athenians launched a sneak attack that decimated the Persian troops and Themistokles himself fired the fatal arrow that killed Xerxes' father, King Darius, and placed his son on the throne. Unable to convince their Spartan neighbors--with Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) manning the fort in the absence of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, seen only in footage culled from the pervious film)--the Athenians take to the Aegean Sea to repel the oncoming intruders and despite being badly outnumbered, they manage to more than hold their own throughout thanks to their ingenuity, their resourcefulness and their ability to fight utilizing the powers of slow-motion.

Leading the Persian side into battle is Artemisia (Green), a Greek-born lass who as a child saw her entire village, including her family, destroyed by rival Greeks and was herself thrown into slavery before eventually being cast out onto the streets of Persia. There, she was taken under the wing of King Darius, who raised her as his own daughter while training her to become the fiercest of all his warriors. Now with Xerxes off battling the Spartans, Artemisia commands the Persian navy in the hopes getting the ultimate revenge on Greece by destroying them once and for all. Despite her overwhelming forces, Themistokles and his troops continue to keep her at bay and she is forced to deploy more unconventional measures in her attempts to bring him to his knees, as it were.

For the most part, "300: Rise of an Empire" is just as tedious and irritating as its predecessor. Although Snyder produced and co-wrote this one, he turned over the directing duties to Noah Munro (whose only previous feature credit was, oddly enough, the long-forgotten 2008 indie "Smart People") but was clearly using a heavy whip hand as the films are virtually indistinguishable in all the key areas. What little there is in the way of narrative is pretty much dispensed with in the first half-hour so as not to interfere with the seemingly endless battle scenes that make up the majority of the film or the occasional mucho-macho speechifying studded with the occasional jarring anachronism (unless "F---" was a common expletive back in the day). Visually, cinematographer Simon Duggan continues the same cinematic approximation of Miller's illustrations but the novelty has worn off and the cosmetic additions--chiefly the endlessly swirling camera movements and the redoubtable miracle of 3-D--add little to the proceedings. As for the acting, Heady and Santoro make brief appearances that all but scream "contractual obligation" while the newcomers largely fail to make any impact--as impossible as it would theoretically seem to find a leading man less interesting than Gerard Butler, this film does exactly that in the form of Sullivan Stapleton, an big sleepy lug who evokes all the raw charisma of the strip mall law firm from where he presumably stole his name.

Luckily, "Rise of an Empire" has a genuine wild card on hand in the form of Eva Green, whose Artemisia is one of the juiciest screen villains to come along in a while. Perhaps best known to arthouse fans (and followers of Mr. Skin) for her knockout debut in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers") and to mainstream moviegoers for her work in "Casino Royale," where she was the doomed Vesper Lynd, and the film version of "Dark Shadows," where she was the most memorable aspect by far. This time around, she is working with decidedly lesser material--yes, lesser than "Dark Shadows"--but she nevertheless tears into it with such glee that she not only steals every scene that she is in, she even steals most of the others on the basis that everyone watching will be awaiting her return rather than paying attention to what is going on. Her Artemisia is a femme fatale for the ages--she is funny, ferocious, heart-stoppingly sexy and more than holds her own against her beefy counterparts in the fight scenes. All of these aspects come into play in the film's single most memorable sequence, the one in which Artemisia attempts to seduce Themistokles to her side using her considerable wiles in ways that don't so much blur the thin line between sex and violence as much as they obliterate them completely. By suggesting that the big sex scene is the sole highlight of the film, I realize that I am opening myself up to charges that I am acting more like a sniggering little boy than an astute critic (especially since it is the point where Green goes about bringing parity to the on-screen nipple count) but the simple fact is that it is the one sequence on display that contains the kind of genuine vitality and energy to bust through the artifice and give viewers the kind of actual thrill that is otherwise lacking throughout.

Despite Green's anti-heroic contributions--and seriously, she is really great here and whatever star rating I give the film is entirely due to her work--"300: Rise of an Empire" is still a patently unnecessary bore that even she cannot rescue from total disposability. It won't be the worst fender-head action spectacular that you will see this year--it wasn't even the worst one that I saw on that particular screening day--but even the most ardent fans of "300"--they do exist, though one might not necessarily want to sit next to one during a long bus trip--would be hard-pressed to defend it as anything other than a pointless cash that only comes to life when Eva Green comes on the screen. If only the filmmakers had decided to dump the story, rename it "Artemisia" and make it entirely from her perspective--now that might have been something worth seeing. As it is now, "300: Rise of an Empire" is not quite worth seeing in theaters but when Green is around, you can almost forget that.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23659&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/06/14 20:27:12
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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)
  DVD: 24-Jun-2014


  DVD: 24-Jun-2014

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