The empire strikes out
One of the best among many moments of unintentional hilarity in Noam Murro’s noisy and stupid 300: Rise of an Empire is almost a throwaway line. As an Athenian general surveys his chiseled and battle-worn troops, all of whom appear to have wandered out of a 1980s Bowflex commercial and into a gladiator-themed stag film, he remarks with a straight face, “Not bad for a bunch of farmers, poets and sculptors.”
OK, so 300: Rise of an Empire isn’t exactly Double Indemnity in terms of snappy dialogue and complex characters, but that’s not the problem here. The problem is that in terms of being a hyperstylized, dreamily captivating, deliriously homophobic and homoerotic bit of action kink, it’s not exactly Zack Snyder’s 2006 original 300, either.
It is easy to decry 300 now, since it created Snyder’s career and forged his cinematic identity, and that hasn’t worked out well for anyone but him. Despite a flood of imitators, though, 300 remains a powerful visual experience, and there are enough disturbing elements in it to undercut the heroic tableaus and blatant Persian-baiting. In creating and fetishizing an ancient universe of institutionalized masochism, sexual degradation and corruption, Snyder makes you wonder if his Sparta is even worth protecting.
300: Rise of an Empire has no such transgressive ambitions and mostly seems content to hurtle strawberry-jamlike globules of freshly drawn platelets at the viewer’s retinas over and over again. Snyder’s gaudy kinkiness is mostly gone, and instead we get endless and mindless slow-motion, hand-to-hand slaughter, with the persistent “thwamp!” from the Junkie XL score signifying that this cartoonish mayhem is really serious stuff.
The plot places 300: Rise of an Empire at the vanguard of franchise-film story-tending. It’s not a prequel, but it fleshes out the backstory of the “God King” Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, one of a handful of returning actors). It’s also not a sequel, although the third act takes place after the Spartan defeat. It’s also not a reboot, even as it slavishly attempts to recreate the look and feel of the original.
Like The Bourne Legacy, 300: Rise of an Empire is more of a “parallel-quel,” telling a narrative that operates side by side with the already established storyline, while occasionally interweaving some of those new elements into the franchise’s mythology. It’s really quite annoying.
This 300 parallel-quel follows Themistokles, a personality-free war hero who leads the Athenian armies against the massive Persian fleet. Themistokles is played by Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton, and he’s matched by French actress Eva Green as the leather-bustier-clad Persian commander. More accurately, the unmemorable Stapleton is completely overmatched by Green, who savors every purple word of Snyder and Kurt Johnstad’s dopey screenplay as though they were stuck between her teeth.
Her Artemisia is a long-suffering Greek orphan and slave taken in by the Persians and trained to kill, and she still seeks vengeance for her suffering. Snyder only co-wrote and co-produced 300: Rise of an Empire, but it still continues his appalling treatment of women, offering the same repulsive, rape-as-female-empowerment viewpoint he peddled in Sucker Punch and Watchmen.
After Themistokles kills the Persian king, the revenge-minded Artemisia urges his son Xerxes to reinvent himself as a God. Wandering the desert, he enters a hermit’s cave and submerges his scrawny frame and shaggy visage in a pool of supernatural something or other. He re-emerges as the bald and bedazzled giant we know from the first film, overly complicated facial jewelry and all. Apparently, the ancient demons of the underworld are hella into eyebrow piercings.
In contrast to the grueling ground war of 300, most of the fighting here takes place on the water, and the action choreography is just outlandish enough to make the Pirates of the Caribbean movies look like naval-history documentaries. At one point, a fleet of gigantic Persian warships ride in on a hundred-foot-tall, crestless tidal wave that allows them to charge down on their opponents like Gandalf at Helm’s Deep.
If only the rest of 300: Rise of an Empire was as idiotically over-the-top as that image. Unfortunately, it’s too aggressively watered-down and annoyingly repetitive to inspire anything more profound than unintentional laughter.