Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Noam Murro
Stars: Sullivan Stapleton, David Wenham, Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro, Lena Headey, Jack O’Connell.
Hollywood must have squandered all of its reserves of fake blood for this overly violent and visually ugly and cliched follow up to Zack Snyder’s 2006 epic 300, which redefined the action genre.
Snyder (300, Sucker Punch, etc) is a hack director with an over the top kinetic aesthetic; his films are more of a triumph of style over substance as he throws virtually everything at the screen. And even though he is only credited as writer and producer here his signature is all over the film – it’s almost as if he was standing behind the director giving directions behind the scenes.
300 depicted the bloody and futile last stand by Spartan warrior Leonidas and his troops as they fought an overwhelming Persian army at a vital pass at Thermopylae. All the soldiers perished, but their heroic actions delayed the Persian army, giving the various Greek city states a chance to rally together to eventually defeat the enemy. Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel Xerxes, 300: Rise Of An Empire tells of decisive sea battle that took place over the same three days as the battle of Thermopylae.
Driven by a desire to avenge his father Darius, Xerxes and his massive navy try to attack the city state of Athens, the heart of Greek civilization and culture. The navy is led by the fearsome, venomous Artemisia (former Bond girl Eva Green), a strong Amazonian like character who carries a fierce hatred for all things Greek having spent much of her childhood in servitude on a Greek slave ship. Driven by a bloodlust, Artemisia is determined to destroy all of Greece. Standing in her way is the Greek general Themistocles (played by Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton, from Animal Kingdom, Strike Back, etc), who is renowned for his tactical brilliance. Over three days Themistocles guides his troops in battle against the might of the Perisan navy. Artemesia seems to have enough ships at her command to dwarf even the Spanish Armada (although according to the history books she only commanded about a handful of ships in reality).
The movie centres around the conflict between Themistocles and Artemisia, which climaxes (ahem!) in one of the more bruising sex scenes seen on film for quite some time.
With his second Hollywood feature, Israeli director Noam Murro (Smart People) sees no need to tamper with the formula or visual aesthetic established by Snyder. All he does is amplify the carnage amidst lots of frenetic cartoon-like violence, bloody gore and body parts. There is lots of slow motion violence here, as soldiers leap into battle, and a high body count. And when swords bite into human flesh there is a great copious gush of blood. This technique is impressive the first time it is used, but it is overdone and repeated ad nauseum.
The screen is awash in the red stuff, and the liberal quantities of blood splashed here would make the likes of Tarantino and Peckinpah envious. But it is all so dispiriting! It’s surprising that this very violent film didn’t receive an R rating from the OFLC. But this is cliched filmmaking, as Snyder and co-writer Kurt Johnstad (300, Act Of Valor, etc) work in just about every cliche from the Hollywood action playbook.
A lot of the film was shot in front of a green screen, but advances in technology means that the CGI-generated action here is more realistic than the first 300. Ships engage each other and ram each other in confusing sea battles, while soldiers engage each other in physical close quarters combat in this ugly and exhaustingly violent film.
There is little characterisation here, and the only character who is given any sort of backstory is Artemiesia. Green’s presence is meant to temper the testosterone overload of the mainly male cast, but she is a vengeful creation capable of handling herself in the thick of the action that she also becomes a rather cliched and one-dimensional figure. But she is also easily the best thing here, and were it not for her fate she almost deserves her own film!
Sullivan has a fairly dour, wooden presence, and he utters his dialogue in stilted fashion. He makes some speeches aimed at motivating his troops, but they lack the rousing and inspirational quality of Mel Gibson’s “They make take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!” speech from Braveheart. All this from the country that gave us Socrates, Aristotle and the like! But Stapleton is no Gerard Butler, lacking his charisma and intimidating physical presence. And Rodrigo Santoro, reprising his role as the warlike Persian king Xerxes, is a strange character, dressed for battle in little more than a golden speedo and sporting more bling and body piercings than your average rapper and his entourage.
Lena Headey and David Wenham also briefly reprise their roles from the first film, but are less effective. Jack O’Connell, from Skins, impresses with his role as a young lad eager to prove himself in combat, against the wishes of his father.
And there are strong homoerotic undertones to the action here, as the sweaty, buffed up, scantily clad Greek warriors charge into battle wearing little more than leather kilts and shields. The costumer must have bought all the gear wholesale from an S&M and bondage store.
And for some reason cinematographer Simon Duggan (who shot The Great Gatsby, etc) has decided to film the whole thing in washed out grey hues that are ultimately painful on the eye. And wrought large in IMAX and 3D it is even more so!
Like many Hollywood films of recent years depicting events from the ancient world, 300: Rise Of An Empire takes enormous liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes. However, those audiences who enjoyed the first 300 will find little to quibble about here as it essentially dishes up more of the same.