Review: "300: Rise Of An Empire" is a trashy bloodbath for our times
Just in time for the crisis between the West and Russia over Crimea comes "300: Rise Of An Empire," the long-awaited sequel to Zack Snyder's muscle-flexing, blood-splattered comic book epic "300." Snyder, that guru of bleached, muscular imagery (he directed last year's depressing "Man of Steel"), now takes a backseat as producer and leaves the directing to Noam Murro. Murro tones down the CGI six packs and even gives a woman a leading role, and as an intimidating warrior no less.
In the sequel the Persian king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is still obsessed with conquering Greece. His top commander is a vengeful Greek exile named Artemisia, who is played by France's great Eva Greene.
The plot essentially pits Greene against the Athenian commander Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) who is the last best hope for Greece to fight off mighty Persia. The 300 Spartans were of course defeated in the first movie, although King Leonidas's wife is back to lead Spartan forces. She is played by the old pro Lena Headey who is taking a break here from "Game Of Thrones." Now the two warriors will square off in the Aegean sea complete with slow-mo montages of flaming ships and clanging swords.
As a historical narrative, "300: Rise Of An Empire" is of course completely ludicrous. It's based on another Frank Miller comic. It's another testosterone-fueled rampage where the "story" is an excuse to fill the screen with piles of carnage and gallons of fake blood. The film even opens with a giant, crimson wave washing over the screen. "The blood of heroes," explains Queen Gorgo (Headey) in the opening narration. The music score by Junkie XL is a nonstop, pounding blender of electronica, Middle Eastern and percussion sounds that evoke the days when Dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
When it comes to the acting Greene is the convincing performer. She knows how to pull off big lines like "Athens will burn" with subtle gusto.
The Greeks get a few better lines, but Stapleone's Themistokles is your basic, ripped guy who clenches his jaw onscreen and throws punches. The sex scene between Greene and Stapleton was so exaggerated, unnecessary and ridiculous that the audience started laughing.
Visually the movie had a few notable sequences when the carnage died down. The original "300" established the kind of bleached look and slow motion action style that were lifted by everyone from the History Channel to "Sherlock Holmes."
Here the technique is present, but there was also something grand about the panning shots of an imaginary, over-designed Athens on fire with a scorching Acropolis, a of shot hundreds of Athenian fighters charging down a hill in the rain and a scene in homage to Oscar Wilde's "Salome" where Greene kisses the head of a decapitated Greek. It feels as if Murro was given a bad script to direct but tried to make the best of some of the better pages.
But what is fascinating about the whole "300" phenomenon is how it resonates perfectly with the national psychology of the times. The original movie was highly controversial because it premiered at a time when the Iraq War was at its peak and there was a very real possibility of war with Iran (the old Persian Empire). There was some validity to accusations that it was fascistic. The Spartans were fit, European warriors while the Persians were depicted as deformed, decadent, feminized, weird Orientals.
Indeed the author of the "300" comics, Frank Miller, is a very vocal right-winger who trashed the Occupy Wall Street movement for not focusing on the threat of "Islamism."
"Rise Of An Empire" is not as extreme in its approach, the Persians are depicted just as ridiculously muscular as the Greeks, but in a curious, cinematic way it still reflects the cultural psyche.
The current crisis with Russia is a perfect example. Vladimir Putin is depicted in the news as a mysterious, threatening wanna-be Xerxes ready to unleash the Slavic hordes on Ukraine. In a recent speech at UCLA, Hillary Clinton sounded like Queen Gorgo when she taunted Putin with a Spartan tone, calling him a "tough guy with a thin skin."
Of course Murro and his team set out to make an action movie, not a political film. Plus they had no way of even predicting the Russian crisis. But "Rise Of An Empire," like its predecessor, seems to filter our nationalist, hyper-macho view of the world through an action extravaganza.
"Rise Of An Empire" is a blood-soaked pop culture remix of the ancient world, it's all action and no story. But as a cultural artifact it's fascinating to watch, whether you'll be tempted to see it again is another question.