2006’s Zack Snyder-directed 300 was a modestly entertaining picture, one that initially garnered great enthusiasm for its innovative style, impressive costuming, and absolute determination to show as much male skin as possible. Based on the Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name, it was an R-rated bloody cheese-fest, and while it gets weaker with each subsequent viewing, it was wildly popular when it was released, raking in an impressive $210 million. Despite its success, I do not recall anyone clamoring for a sequel. And yet, here we are.
Things have changed, of course, for 300: Rise Of An Empire. Snyder has vacated the director’s chair, content with scribbling out the screenplay and playing producer. Instead, it’s helmed by first-timer Noam Murro, and based — we think, anyway — on Frank Millers as-of-yet unreleased sequel, Xerxes. Obviously, many of the leads from the original film are absent, given how many of them died in the original. Returning are Lena Headey as the warrior-queen Gorgo, and Rodrigo Santoro as the god-king Xerxes, although neither role is particularly substantial.
This time, the film focuses on both the events leading up to that battle at the Hot Gates, as well as its aftermath. It’s all about naval battles this time around, drawing on the battles of Artemisium, Thermopylae, and Marathon, and centering on two opposing leaders — Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), the leader of the Greek army, and Artemisia (Eva Green), the admiral of Xerxes’s navy. It wildly veers back and forth between the past and present, dealing with the battle where Themistocles killed Xerxes father, which set off this chain of events, and the two major naval battles where Xerxes — through Artemisia — made his final push to try to conquer Greece.
I tell you all of this not because I want you to think that Rise Of An Empire is particularly intelligent or historically accurate, but rather to give you an idea of the scale and scope of its absolutely staggering ineptitude. Historical storytelling is often a fluid endeavor, prone to creative license and dramatic reinterpretation. Yet this mangles any sense of historical accuracy, taking the events as well as the biographies of its players, stomping on them until they are nigh-unrecognizable, and urinating on whatever remains. 300: Rise Of An Empire is an absolutely bugfuck crazy pot of horribleness, a worthless, murky sinkhole of terrible writing, directing, acting, and editing.
I could forgive its decision to vulgarly squat atop any semblance of historical fidelity if the story that it chose to tell was of any worth, but alas, this is not to be. Instead, it’s a garbled mess of old men shouting “MURMUR!”, shirtless heroes giving nonsensical speeches replete with pithy motivational slogans, and bad guys muttering slithery proclamations of conquest and villainy. All of this is supposed to give the appearance of political intrigue and complexity, except that the story is so simple that you’d have to actually be unconscious not to grasp it. There are desperate attempts to recapture the urgency and intensity of Gerard Butler’s “THIS! IS! SPARTA!” or Michael Fassbenders wry, clever “Then we will fight in the shade” moments, but they fall flat, victim to hackneyed writing and soulless delivery. Instead, we’re treated to characters doing little more than making obvious, trite declarations via shouty imitations of what they think made the original film interesting. But watching Santoro loudly lisp “Nothing will stop the march of my empire!” and “For glory’s sake, WAR!” or listening to Stapleton dully yammer about duty and honor and loyalty over and over and over does little more than drive home the point that you’re watching a sad, flaccid imitation of the original.
The acting is uniformly abysmal, with Stapleton somehow managing to be both loud and wooden, and Santoro over-acting even more than he did in the original. Headey’s queen Gorgo is just Cersei Lannister but with less charisma, menace, or nuance, and she grits her teeth and stares blankly as she mumbles eye-rolling lines about winds of justice and vengeance. Yet no one — no one — acquits themselves as poorly as Eva Green in a performance that is near-hysterical in its epic terribleness. Green is something of an enigma, capable of great subtlety and intensity in films like Cracks and even Casino Royale. But sometimes she tries to just sexily smolder her way through a performance, and that’s part of what drags her down here. She glowers and struts and cranks her sultry up to eleven, doing everything within her power to give the worst performance possible. It’s not aided by the character being written as a complete cartoon, executing her soldiers and then making out with the severed head, waggling her fingers, and screaming incoherently. After an absolutely ridiculous sex scene, a scratching, biting, shrieking exchange that isn’t even remotely titillating, she ends up facing her conjugal partner in battle and screeches “you FIGHT better than you FUCK!” and the audience literally burst into what can only be called embarrassed giggles.
In fact, it’s her character that takes the worst beating from the writers, no pun intended. Artemisia is indeed a fascinating character, a warrior and leader, queen of a Persian province despite being not just Greek, but a woman as well. She’s a legendary, fearless, and cunning figure known for her wisdom as well as her military acumen. Yet here, she’s a raving psychotic, a shrill, looney-tunes harpy who charges recklessly into battles simply out of petulant anger. Worst of all, the writers decided that simply having a warrior-queen who commanded thousands of men based on her skills and loyalty to her king wasn’t enough motivation, so they went back to the old patriarchal standby.
Yup, years before, Artemisia was raped by a gang of Greek soldiers, then held captive for 10 years and used as a child sex slave, shown through a thoroughly unpleasant vignette where we get to see her family raped and killed in silhouette, and then her as a child punched out and chained inside a ship, as a shadowy figure walks towards her. Let’s be clear — this 100% did not happen, but of course nothing makes for a better plot motivation than a good rape (something the first film is guilty of as well). In fact, it’s not even the only rape alluded to or depicted — the film opens with a naked woman being carried off by Persian soldiers, with the camera cutting away just as they begin, another completely unnecessary, distasteful sequence.
300: Rise Of An Empire is a horrendously bad film that fails even as brainless action entertainment. The action sequences are, save for a couple of straightforward single take combat scenes, hyper-edited and brought to their knees by a hideous excess of slow-motion and so much darkness and shadow — likely in an effort to make the copious spurting blood stand out more — that it’s nearly impossible to actually tell what is happening. But it’s the writing and acting that crush it to the ground, grinding out any semblance of intelligence or interest, and making the film into an gore-laden heap of visual dreck accompanied by an obnoxious cacophony that beats at your eardrums. It has literally nothing worthwhile to offer, and those who see it voluntarily will likely never forgive themselves.