Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe society asked for a 300 sequel. I most certainly did not. No matter, here in all it’s dizzying glory, 300: Rise of an Empire, ushering forth a new generation of swords-and-sandals marked by flashy, gory viz effects and a total lack of narrative cohesion. Huzzah!This somewhat of a sequel, somewhat of a prequel was to be based on Frank Miller‘s “Xerxes,” a followup to his popular graphic novel “300”. Accordingly, we’d expect Rise to hue closely to that eponymous figure. Alas, Xerxes is but a shadow of a character; his “origin story” a shameless reveal to be laughed away, his character development dumbed down to a wardrobe and makeup change. We’re left asking, “Why give Xerxes an origin story if this is all you can muster up?”
But upon looking at the Rise picture as a whole, the essence of it boils down to the artificial glitz, the impossible esthetic, the bloody glamor of it all. The story is always left simmering on the back burner, the script a collection of nerdy Dungeon and Dragon wet dream speeches, edited by runway models and funneled through the brutish cadence of a WWE wrestler. “This is Sparta!” may have had fanboys bouncing in their seats but there’s nothing here half as memorable and with amateur director Noam Murro behind the camera, the delivery is half as cared for.
All the narrative garbage that makes its way into Rise only makes sense after uncovering just how messy the infrastructure upon which it was based is. After penning the first two installments of “Xerxes,” Miller straight up abandoned the project, scrapping it to work on new “Sin City” ideas. The final product that is 300: Rise of an Empire is brazen evidence of an aborted story, the beginning of an idea discovered half-hanging out of a garbage bin and then blown up into something only Hollywood could lay claim to. Let’s just say screenwriters Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad didn’t do much of a clean up job before unloading it onto audiences.
Getting into Miller’s head, we can only assume that he knew there was no story left to be told. Rather, this takes the leftovers of the first 300 and spreads it thin over a sheet of investor Benjamins. In effect, it all winds up feeling like you’ve stumbled onto the “Play all” section of 300‘s deleted scenes. There’s no heart beneath the arduous speeches, no story beyond the effects. It’s the perfect example of telling but not showing, it’s style over substance at its most wanton. Like dissecting a frog and realizing that all its organs had already been removed, nothing exists inside Rise and there’s certainly no heartbeat.
Worse yet, it depends entirely on the existence of the first installment. As a piece of digestible fiction, it’s bereft of meaning without knowledge of the events of the original. Nor does it add anything substantive that wasn’t already implied with that inaugural outing. In short, it’s utterly useless.
Inspired by greasy comic book pages though it may be, digitial cinematography from Simon Duggan looks pulled from a collection of rejected Lisa Frank art. For how stylized it desperately tries to be, every nook and cranny looks cheap and ugly. Second rate CGI is only emphasized by superfluous slow-mo, with redundant train tracks of blood that betray their post-production art team’s gluttonous need for excess.
And aside from Eva Greene‘s Artemisia, there are no actual characters, just vessels for wannabe badass one-liners. Sinewy though they may be, watching the brawny cast try to act is like watching an extra-padded gym rat stare at his economics exam. It’s hopeless.
For every instance that Greene is markedly mesmerizing, star of the show Sullivan Stapleton displays a knack for looking befuddled rarely witnessed in such embarrassing glory on the big screen. He always seems strained, like he’s trying to read something slightly too far off to make out clearly. It’s as if he wandered onto the wrong sound stage the first day of shooting and was feed cues scribbled in sharpie on poster board off-camera. His performance is a certified stinker from beginning to end and could just be the footnotes to his new found career.
Far be it for me to think that I would see myself pining for more Gerald Butler but his nominally epic presence is sorely missed. Having Stapleton as his replacement is like subbing Jamie Kennedy in for Jim Carrey (The Mask), Ben Affleck for Harrison Ford (Jack Ryan movies).
The most brutal example of Stapleton getting shown up comes whenever he’s facing down Greene, who acts circles around him like an Olympic ice skater around a traffic cone. It seems that even Murro was aware of this fact, as his camera is predominantly focused on Greene and away from Stapleton whenever the two share a room.
As Stapleton and Greene’s unorthodox relationship becomes the only semblance of character dynamics the movie has, we get solitary respite from meaningless bloodshed when the two put down their swords to talk things out and end up banging like harebrained rabbits. Their sex scene as power brawl is the icing on King Excess’ cake. It’s Duggan’s glorified money shot, his pulp friction. It’s the perfect allegory for the film at large: people fucking around. Not one to balk at the sight of celebrity mammary glands, let’s say that it’s the one brand of excess this critic is willing to afford.
Coming full circle though, I still am wondering what prompted development of Rise in the first place. Financially, the first 300 was a measured success, earning over $200 million domestically and more than that overseas, all on a relatively tight production budget of $65 million. Blatant attempt to add to the coffers though this may be, the suits at Legendary forgot one important detail. As the idiom goes, strike while the iron is hot.
Eight years (the lengthy gestation period between that film and this new one) is a long cool down period. To say the result is lukewarm is an insult to the temperature. It sails in a chilly tempest and never manages to get our blood boiling, no matter how much viscus they spray across the screen. Then, before you know it, it’s gone again, leaving you wondering, “Why does this exist at all?”
We’ve come a long way since the visual effects of 300 were groundbreaking and eight years later, Rise looks like the same crew using the same computers and same effects. Nothing is more impressive than the first time around, even their Athenian pecs aren’t as inhuman.
Matt Oakes saw over 150 movies in theaters and probably drank more than his weight in beer last year. Check out more reviews at his website www.silverscreenriot.com and follow Matt on Facebook and on Twitter.