Friday, March 7, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire ... fall of a movie

300: Rise of an Empire (2014) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for constant gory violence, nudity, profanity and a hilarious sex scene

By Derrick Bang

In case anybody has wondered, two hours of gore-porn is a total yawn.

Impressed by the battlefield savvy demonstrated by her enemy, Artemisia (Eva Green)
offers Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) a place at the head of her own army ... and,
as an added inducement, a place in her bed. Will this Athenian commander succumb
to such temptation? Do we care in the slightest?
Director Noam Murro hasn’t the slightest affinity for this material: no surprise, since his only previous big-screen credit is the 2008 comedy bomb, Smart People. I can’t imagine what led Warner Bros. to trust Murro with the sequel to 2006’s unexpectedly popular 300, but, then, I rarely understand what transpires in big-studio pitch meetings.

Not that Murro should shoulder all the blame, with so much to spread around. I doubt any director could have made much of the wafer-thin narrative that scripters Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad audaciously call a screenplay. I always thought writers endeavored to create characters whose thoughts and deeds would engage our emotions, but Snyder and Johnstad apparently believe the same can be accomplished with another splash of blood on the screen.

Not hardly.

Indeed, it’s difficult to remember anything else taking place during this flimsy excuse for a movie. Occasional scenes of stilted, woodenly acted dialogue aside, 300: Rise of an Empire is 102 minutes of disembowelments, severed limbs and decapitations, seasoned with some slashed throats and pierced eyeballs. And most of the interminable battle scenes are filmed in loving slow-motion by cinematographer Simon Duggan, with the gallons of splattered blood inserted later, via CGI sweetening.

If all the melees and close-up hacking and slashing were projected at normal speed, this film probably wouldn’t run more than half an hour. Which would be a good thing.

As an added bonus, this film’s 3D effects were added after the fact, contributing to the overall murky pallor that hangs over every frame. As was the case with Clash of the Titans and numerous other “fake 3D” efforts, many sequences are so dark that it’s difficult to discern what the heck is happening. Call that an unintentional blessing.

As adapted clumsily from Frank Miller’s graphic novel Xerxes — itself a sequel to his graphic novel 300 — this story occurs during the aftermath of the great battle that took place at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., when King Leonidas and his “brave 300” gloriously battled a much larger Persian army to a standstill. For a time.

That huge Persian force was commanded by the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), a cruel and petulant ruler whose revenge-fueled reason for invading Greece is detailed in this new film’s first act: a flashback that sets up this saga’s new hero, Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), an Athenian warrior who previously handed the Persians an embarrassing defeat that is witnessed by a younger Xerxes.

Returning home to sulk, the malleable Xerxes is transformed into his more powerful form by the machinations of the warrior Artemisia (Eva Green), who has her own reasons for hating the Greeks (cue another flashback). So, Xerxes eventually destroys Leonidas’ defending Spartans, thanks to the Shakespearean-style betrayal by a traitorous Greek hunchback, and now — as this film returns to its “present” — threatens to pillage and burn all of Greece to the ground.

The only thing in Xerxes’ way: an equally outnumbered Athenian naval force, with which Themistokles intends to hold off Artemisia’s superior Persian navy, until ... well, therein lies the nub of our hero’s mad gambit. Themistokles has long nurtured a desire to unite all the Greek city-states, a goal contemptuously rebuffed by Leonidas’ wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), pre-Thermopylae.

Now, in the immediate wake of Leonidas’ brave but ultimately futile last stand, Themistokles hopes to delay the Persians long enough for Queen Gorgo to come to her senses, stoking a desire for revenge that will, finally, bring isolationist Sparta into the greater Greek fold.

This certainly sounds like the set-up for a tense and exciting war film, but nothing on screen is anywhere near as interesting as the few paragraphs you’ve just read. Murro, Snyder and Johnstad squander this no-doubt-fascinating historical battle with a laughably tiny cadre of one-dimensional characters who haven’t an ounce of back-story between them.

Themistokles suffers guilt because he failed to kill young Xerxes, back in the day, when given the opportunity (although, as recounted during the aforementioned flashback, it’s difficult to see how Themistokles could have done so). Aeskylos (Hans Matheson) is Themistokles’ staunchest friend and ally. Scyllias (Callan Mulvey) is Themistokles’ other staunchest friend and ally. Scyllias doesn’t want his son, Calisto (Jack O’Connell) to be part of the Athenians’ suicidal stand against the Persians ... but of course the headstrong young man insists on joining the fun.

That’s it, folks: That’s all we get in the way of characterization, from any of these Athenians. David Wenham enjoys a bit of screen time as the handsome Dilios, but he may as well have the phrase “sacrificial lamb” tattooed on his buff chest.

All the rest of the Athenian soldiers, and all of the Persians, are faceless chunks of meat being led to slaughter. Could we possibly care less about any of them?


Nor do we think much of Themistokles, Aeskylos, Scyllias and Calisto. The actors playing those roles don’t do much to win our hearts and minds, although — in fairness — the script doesn’t give them anything to work with. Bare chests, grim expressions and terse, single-sentence “conversations” are all we get.

Headey delivers a bit more juice as the arrogant and contemptuous Queen Gorgo, although this character seems a pale imitation of the actress’ far better crafted Cersei Lannister, in TV’s Game of Thrones. Santoro mostly stands and scowls, giving us little of the ferocity that made Xerxes so powerful in 300.

Artemisia is by far this film’s best and most interesting character, and Green is the only performer to inject some genuine life into her part. She seems to understand that one shouldn’t take this material too seriously; Artemisia’s smirky air of superiority is the only saving grace in this otherwise tedious exercise in thud and blunder.

Until, that is, a plot contrivance grants Themistokles and Artemisia an extravagant sex scene that’s just as laughably overblown as the infamous swimming pool coupling between Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan, in 1995’s Showgirls. No film could recover from such atrocious nonsense, but of course this one’s DOA long before Green bares her breasts.

As with 300, which Snyder directed to somewhat better effect, only the actors are real here; the sets and backgrounds are CGI concoctions by visual effects supervisors Richard Hollander and John Desjardin. And, as was the case with 300, this so-called “heightened reality” actually has the opposite effect, putting these characters into a patently false environment that makes it harder to connect with anything or anybody.

But 300, at least, took greater advantage of this technology by giving us some genuine monsters and fantasy-laden elements. This sequel rather oddly plays down the supernatural content, instead concentrating on real world-style naval battles and sword-and-shield combat. Which begs the question: Why bother with so much CGI, when authentic settings would have better engaged our emotions?

In a word, 300: Rise of an Empire is a mess. It’s dull, tedious and wholly uninvolving, capable of doing nothing but hurling grue at the camera, like a bored child repeatedly pounding the same single note on a piano.

This is the sort of junk that gives CGI filmmaking a very, very bad name.

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