Friday, March 7, 2014

In Theaters: 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Noam Murro.  Written by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad.  Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro, David Wenham, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, Jack O'Connell, Andrew Tiernan, Igal Naor, Andrew Pleavin, Ben Turner, Ashraf Barham, Christopher Sciueref, Peter Ferdinando. (R, 103 mins)

Zack Snyder's 300 became an unexpected blockbuster in early 2007, earning the director the clout to make the long-planned big-screen version of WATCHMEN and giving Gerard Butler what will likely go down as the role of his career.  A hyper-stylized, CGI-heavy depiction of King Leonidas (Butler) of Sparta leading 300 brave Spartans on what amounts to a suicide mission against the Persian army of god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), 300 has inspired countless parodies and quotes and its digital splatter, slo-mo, and speed-ramping have become, for better or worse, standards of modern action cinema from sword & sandal epics of this sort to martial-arts to sci-fi, though you could argue that THE MATRIX really got the ball rolling; 300 wasn't the first to use these techniques, but it was the biggest factor in its current ubiquity.  The biggest surprise with 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is that it took seven years to happen.  300's story was self-contained but it seemed like a DTV franchise or cable-TV series would be inevitable (you can probably file the Starz' SPARTACUS under the "inspired by 300" category).  Presumably so he could focus his attention on incurring the hyperventilating wrath of fanboys the world over, Snyder only produced and co-wrote here, opting instead to hand directing duties off to the unlikely Noam Murro, whose only previous feature is the 2008 comedy-drama SMART PEOPLE, RISE OF AN EMPIRE isn't exactly a sequel but rather, a spinoff that--courtesy of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks--takes place before, during, and after the events of the first film.

Opening after the death of King Leonidas and his fallen warriors (Butler is seen fleetingly in footage taken from 300), RISE begins with Leonidas' widow Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) recounting the story of famed Athenian general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton of Cinemax's STRIKE BACK), his legend cemented upon killing Persian King Darius (Igal Naor), naturally prompting Darius' son Xerxes (Santoro again) to vow revenge upon making himself a god. Themistokles leads his ships against the Persian naval forces of Xerxes, led by the ferocious Artemisia (Eva Green), a former Greek slave who has pledged allegiance to Persia.  Themistokles unsuccessfully lobbies for help from the Spartans, who end up in their own battle.  Though the Spartans are defeated, it inspires Themistokles and his men as Stapleton gets his own "We are Sparta!" catchphrases to bellow ("Let it be known...we chose to die on our feet rather than live on our knees!").  Murro wisely opts against fixing what isn't broken, instead taking the action set pieces and violence to extremes, making this even more of a hard-R, CGI bloodbath than its predecessor, and in 3-D on top of that.  Given its graphic novel roots (RISE is based on Xerxes, a yet-to-be-published Frank Miller work), the artifice is essential to the experience and for the most part, RISE looks magnificent on the big screen (one shot of Xerxes looking down upon his kingdom is dizzyingly breathtaking), though there is some occasional murkiness and one sequence where Themistokles rides a horse onto Artemisia's ship that's distractingly video-gamey in its execution.

The idea with RISE is that everything's bigger and bloodier.  It avoids the jingoistic subtext of the first film, instead zeroing in on the carnage, the action, and the sex.  If anything, it's even more of an adolescent pulp fantasy than Snyder's film.  While Stapleton is competent if unspectacular as Themistokles (he looks like he's readying himself to be the second-string Michael Fassbender), RISE gets its biggest oomph from a gloriously over-the-top nemesis in Green's Artemisia.  Best known for Bernardo Bertolucci's THE DREAMERS (2003) and as Vesper Lynd in CASINO ROYALE (2006), Green has spent recent years exploring her inner psycho-bitch.  With her wicked snarl and her wild-eyed yet piercing glare showing no limit to the potential for crazy, Green writhed and vamped across the screen as Angelique Bouchard and was the best thing about Tim Burton's otherwise ho-hum DARK SHADOWS (2012).  Here, she goes even further but never turns Artemisia into a cartoon.  Whether she's kissing a severed head or seductively cooing to Themistokles about "the ecstasy of flesh and steel" like a Greco-Persian-era femme fatale before a vigorous round of mutual hate-fucking, Green absolutely owns this film from the moment she first appears (Green fans should also check out her work in the unsettling cloning/incest drama WOMB).  When Artemisia defies Xerxes' orders to stand down by snapping "Just sit on your golden throne in the safety that I provide," even the ruthless god-king is left speechless and intimidated.  If they choose to make another 300 offshoot, they shouldn't even bother unless it's focused squarely on Green's Artemisia.

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE isn't a lesson in historical accuracy, but it succeeds as thoroughly enjoyable trash.  I wasn't as enamored of Snyder's film as many were, mainly because it seemed to take itself a little too seriously (for what it's worth, I stand by WATCHMEN and consider SUCKER PUNCH to be Snyder's masterpiece).  RISE, on the other hand, feels looser and is a lot more fun.  It's a big-budget B-movie that embraces its exploitative elements, knows exactly what it is, and makes no apologies for it.

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