By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies: 300: Rise of an Empire
300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Noam Murro, 2014
Greek history doesn’t get much livelier — or bloodier, gorier, more absurd and more wildly over the top — than it does in 300: Rise of an Empire, producer-writer Zack Snyder’s 3D version of the three-cornered war back in 480 B.C. or so between the Greek and Spartan armies and the invading Persians. A follow-up to Snyder’s surprise smash historo-hit 300 (made back in 2007) — which re-imagined the battle at Thermopylae between Xerxes’ Persian hordes and the outnumbered but ferocious Spartans of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), as it might have been experienced in a cocaine-fueled nightmare — this show, like its predecessor, often resembles a gigantic immersive video game designed and executed with unlimited computer resources. It may be preposterous — hell, it is preposterous — but it’s never boring.
The movie is taken from graphic novel guy Frank Miller’s book Xerxes — just as 300 was based by writer-director Snyder on Miller’s 300 — and it’s been produced and directed to within an inch of its life by Snyder (and Mark Canton, Gianni Nunnari and Bernie Goldman) and Israeli director Noam Murro (Smart People) — a sort of sideways sequel (the stories take place simultaneously) to the hugely successful 300.
This picture is almost as crazy and spectacular, but not really as good — despite the best efforts of all the production people and of the movie’s unquestioned star: ex-Bond Girl Supreme and sexy villainess specialist Eva Green, who steals, and all but eviscerates, the entire movie. Her role: Artemisia, the dark-eyed, fierce commander of the Persian fleet, a warrior queen who can quite literally screw you to death.
300 II (which we’ll call it for convenience’s sake), also somewhat resembles a ‘60s Italian-shot Roman he-man epic (in the heyday of Steve Reeves, Pietro Francisci and Vittorio Cottafavi) gone berserk. Like those sword and sandal shows, it’s a beefcake promenade, full of dour-faced, bare-chested muscle-men with names like Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton as the Greek naval commander), lusty Scyllias (Callan Mulvey) and his faithful son Calisto (Jack O’Connell). Here, caught by a constantly prowling camera, they and the rest of the body-building Greek navy, wander around flexing pectorals, grandly orating and discussing battle plans with deadly sobriety, crying out “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees!” (which is sort of the movie‘s motto) or running around half-naked, wielding and waving mighty swords and lopping off bloody arms and heads — all in often gruesomely protracted slow-motion photography that makes Sam Peckinpah’s balletic gunfights in The Wild Bunch look almost Bressonian.
Incidentally, you may well wonder why these Greek fighting men (and many others before in beefcake history movies) keep running into battle with bare chests and gigantic swords, eschewing armor — which seems like a recipe for mass suicide. But, in fact, baring your chest in battle, whether historically accurate or not, seems to be a requirement of the Greek and Persian navies here, as it is in many sword-and-sandals specials. And that undress code is observed by almost everyone but the otherwise brazen Artemisia, who keeps her epic chest covered until she gets Themistokles alone in her cabin for what she whimsically calls a summit meeting.
The movie is grim, and gruesomely spectacular. It is narrated, with poetic solemnity (which I rather liked), by Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) of Sparta. Themistokles never cracks a smile (nor do any of them, as I remember, except for Artemisia, who has a wicked half-grin she keeps flashing). And he remains a sourpuss even when Artemisia, at the summit meeting, gives him a meaningful glare from her heavily shadowed eyes, and then rips off his clothes, and hers, and he rips as well, and they both rip. and she fastens on him like a mad vampire and rams him all around the cabin just like a bare-chested Greek gladiator sex toy — ignoring the poor guy’s explanation that marital relations are not his specialty, and that he is, as he puts it, “married to the fleet.” The movie’s inarguable highlight, and apparently done without CGI, this doozy is only one of 300 II’s bizarre and violent love scenes, dwarfed in ferocity by the one where Artemisia, still smiling, decapitates another defiant Greek, kisses the lips of his corpse and tosses the head away like a peanut shell.
Most of the movie’s imaginatively staged sea battles take place under roiling turbulent dark-as-death skies, apparently a ruse of the Greeks to discombobulate the Persians, and when the ships crash and warriors are tossed or jump into a sea full of writhing serpents, while flaming arrows hit their targets from what looks like a mile away, one can only stare in astonishment. They don’t make wars like they used to! And all this takes place while the Persian general Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), a warlike fancy dan, tall as an NBA center and covered head to toe in golden paint, is busy bashing the heroic Spartans, who would rather live on their feet than die on their knees.
Will there be another 300? Why not? There still are yet more foes to bash and torsos to cleave, and grosses to win! (“I would rather live in my bank, than die in the charts.“) And there is yet more Greek history to ravish and ravage — though not sadly, with Eva’s Artemisia, unless she comes back as a sorceress or a vision or a Persian sex toy.
I can’t say this second 300 isn’t entertaining — if nothing else, the cinematography (by Simon Duggan of The Great Gatsby), and the socko-comics design (Patrick Tatopoulos) and the visual effects (Richard Hollander and John Desjardin) knock your eyes out, as does Eva Green, who keeps you compulsively watching, wondering constantly what the hell she’ll do next. But the movie tends to wear you out, and Sullivan Stapleton (of Animal Kingdom) is no Gerard Butler (a sobering comparison). 300 II presupposes an audience whose imagination is the equivalent of a cast-iron stomach, capable of ingesting absurdities galore and oceans of blood, plus battles fought as if by lurching slow-mo zombies.
Maybe the days of spectacular but intelligent historical epics like Spartacus and El Cid and even Gladiator are over. (Miller’s inspiration for 300 is said to be the 1962 Rudolph Mate-Richard Egan version of the battle at Thermopylae, The 300 Spartans, which was no Spartacus.) But, as for me, I swear by the bare witchy bones of Artemisia, and by the bare-chested fleet of Themistokles and by this bloody head that I here wave and hurl into the flaming sea full of writhing serpents and dead extras — that they, all of them, Persia, whoever, shall not pass! Not while a single Greek warrior of us still stands, strong enough to bare his chest and wave a bloody sword. As for me, I would rather live in my seat that die on my knees!