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300 Rise of an Empire

D: Noam Murro / 102m

Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, Rodrigo Santoro, David Wenham, Jack O’Connell, Andrew Tiernan, Igal Naor

Are we all sitting comfortably?  Good, because if you’re going to watch 300: Rise of an Empire then this synopsis will probably help:

At the battle of Marathon, Greek general Themistocles (Stapleton) shoots an arrow that eventually kills Persian king Darius (Naor).  Darius’ son Xerxes (Santoro) wallows in grief at first but is heartened by his naval commander, Artemisia (Green).  She persuades him that he can be like a god, and with this he can defeat all his enemies, and particularly the Greeks.  Xerxes’ navy, under Artemisia’s command, sets sail for Greece at the same time that his army marches on Sparta.  The Persians and the Greeks do battle at sea, and despite early, minor successes, the Greeks are forced to retreat.  Themistocles tries to enlist the aid of the Spartan fleet for the next battle but Queen Gorgo (Headey) refuses as she is mourning the Spartan king Leonidas, who with his men, have failed to defeat the Persian hordes (who have since laid waste to Athens).  Themistocles has no choice but to take what few ships he has and gamble on getting to Artemisia’s barge, and killing her, which will end the battle.

There.  So what we’ve learnt from all that is that 300: Rise of an Empire is not a sequel to 300 (2006) but a side-quel, a fact-sloppy imagining of events happening concurrently with the first movie, and featuring both the Battle of Artemisium and the subsequent Battle of Salamis, complete with inky blood by the bucket load and more severed limbs than you’d find in a resurrectionist’s wheelbarrow.

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It’s a strange movie to watch in many ways.  There’s the CGI-heavy backgrounds – slightly less impressive this time around – that only just manage to offset the amount of wood and cardboard on display in the foreground; Queen Gorgo’s penchant for narrating the movie despite not being involved in much of it; Stapleton’s attempts to rally his men in the same fashion as Gerard Butler (and failing); the very strange way in which Xerxes goes from ordinary bloke to baldy giant just by taking a bath; Green’s performance as a ball-breaking Goth-eyed head case; more thick-eared dialogue than you can shake a spear at; one of the most risible (not to mention unlikely) sex scenes in recent memory; and the sight of a horse plunging underwater and then miraculously resurfacing without anything to boost itself up from.  It’s all a little bit overwhelming, as if the filmmakers just decided at some point that “over the top” was the way to go, and proceeded accordingly.

It’s not even that 300: Rise of an Empire is a terrible movie – though it does have some terrible moments, and a couple of terrible performances (step forward O’Connell and Santoro).  It’s more that it’s a movie (so far) out there that it’s in a class of its own.  It exists in a strange half-world where the usual requirements for an historical epic can be safely ignored in favour of bloody spectacle.  And on this level the movie succeeds completely.  Unless this movie is remade at some point in the future – and right now that seems about as likely as producer Zack Snyder making a movie about a violinist rehearsing a piece of chamber music – you will never see a naval battle like either of the ones depicted here.  It’s these sequences that allow the audience to forgive all the movie’s flaws, because when all’s said and done, both battles are brutally impressive, a ballet of blood and beheadings and dismemberment that is as gorily inventive and casually choreographed as anyone who likes this sort of thing could hope for.  It’s not to everyone’s taste, certainly, but it’s hard to deny how well it’s been done.  It’s a shame this much passion couldn’t have been applied to the rest of the movie.

Repeating their roles, Headey and Wenham pop up from time to time to remind us there was and is another movie, while Santoro chews the scenery with unrestrained ferocity.  Stapleton tries to inject some intellect and thought into his performance, but the script defeats him.  Murro directs with an eye on the next limb to be hacked off and appears unconcerned about making the political machinations of both sides either clear or interesting.  The score by Junkie XL is overly dramatic but fits the bill, while Patrick Tatopoulos production design is as impressive as you’d expect.  What these all add up to though is a movie with a strong identity, but one that would be better suited to a video game.

Rating: 6/10 – an extra point for the unrelenting barbarity of the battle sequences, and the movie’s determination to leave no Persian or Greek unscathed; unappealing for most people but like its slightly less aggressive predecessor, war porn for those who  like that sort of thing.

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