Although Zack Snyder might have moved on to only being a co-producer and co-writer to the Frank Miller inspired sequel 300: Rise of an Empire, the film delivers largely a carbon copy of the same material, slinging spears, swords, splatter, and splinters in slo-motion similarly, only this time it’s incredibly boring to sit through. It’s main and major downfall comes from the fact that it somehow manages to be simultaneously more interested with visuals over story than its already threadbare predecessor with occasionally diminished visual effects and a complete lack of a narrative focal point.
Taking place mostly within the same timeline as the first film, the action moves to Athens where the Persian army (who at the start of the film are en route to decimating the Spartan army in awkwardly integrated footage from the first film) where the democratic and largely inexperienced Athenian army prepares their navy in an effort to hold back the same invading horde. Led by former war hero Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the army largely made up of farmers, artisans, and poets are forced to square off against Persian naval mastermind Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek born warrior with a righteous axe to grind against her former country.
Based on Miller’s still allegedly unfinished and yet to be released graphic novel follow-up, Snyder and co-writer Kurt Johnstad seem to have taken an ultraviolent, barely coherent, hardboiled, atrociously written, and unabashedly rapey and sexist narrative and really just watered it all down until only the basics remained. The result is still a barely coherent mess awash in a sea of unconvincing CGI gore and even less convincing battle sequences, but one that comes with a pretty healthy dose of mansplaining about why there is a female villain this time out.
Actually, to Green’s credit she truly does give one of the best performances I think I have ever seen in an otherwise crappy movie. She’s strong, motivated, quick witted, and occasionally able to use her sexuality to inflict fear into the hearts of men quite convincingly. Every moment she’s on screen, the film roars to life if only for a few brief moments. The problem with her character is that in typical Frank Miller/Zack Snyder fashion a big deal is made about how she was repeatedly raped and tortured as a child, implying quite heavily that she’s hysterical and unfeeling and either needs to be stopped or needs the love of a good man. It’s sickening to think about, but somehow, Green is always able to rise above the material. That’s the true sign of a star making performance and that’s exactly what she gives here. Compare it to Lena Heady, returning as deceased Spartan leader Leonidas’ wife, who can only do three things (scoff, mourn, kill), and it’s abundantly clear that Green has more smarts than anyone else on the all green screen set.
The other problem is that because she is so magnetic and justified in her role as a villain that there isn’t any possible way to care about the heroes. Stapleton is simply walking abs with a beard that can give speeches. Aside from a father and son pair of soldiers, I couldn’t tell you who a single other Athenian was. They all look, walk, and talk the same to a point where instead of extras they should have just added everyone else digitally in post. None of it matters and the same sense of pride that drove the Spartans in the first film is gone. While Themistokles seems to care, no one else really does, and when he’s put in opposition to someone actually interesting in Artemisa it’s hard to get behind any of the people the film actively wants us to get behind. It became oddly entertaining to think of the film as a sleazy 70s rape-revenge drive-in movie like I Spit on Your Grave or Last House on the Left where the audience is supposed to root for the victim to do away with the killers as bloodily as possible. By roughly the halfway point, I hoped Greece burned to the ground because I had no reason to care about why any of these people were dying on a personal level and because the Persians were infinitely more interesting. No wonder why the Spartans didn’t want to get involved in this fight.
Director Noam Murro (whose only other feature was the abysmally unfunny indie comedy Smart People back in 2008) is almost a nonentity here; merely a placeholder for the art department and a way to make sure the actors hit their marks to make everyone else’s jobs easier. The only thing he has any real impact on is making sure the film’s opening is so crammed with oppressively lengthy and wordy back story (spoken in the kind of God awful broken sentences that only Frank Miller can write) and making sure that the film’s climax is as visually incomprehensible and chaotic as possible. Also, since almost the entire film takes place at sea, that means almost all of the combat consists of arrows being flung and ships ramming each other and very little of the hand to hand combat that made the first one a minor guilty pleasure.
Nothing about Rise of an Empire fells vital, necessary, or even that novel of an idea. Worst of all, it’s boring. It seems to just be sleepwalking through the motions in an attempt to recapture former glory. It’s like watching your high school football team try to strap the pads on at the ten year reunion only they all seem to have forgotten how to play. You can see the intent, but none of the skill.
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