In 300: Rise of Empire’s world, there is no honor in life; only in death. That theme finds its way to the screen, where bodies are disemboweled, hacked into pieces, impaled, smooshed, drowned, lit on fire, raped, sliced, diced and tenderized into an organic hamburger meat. If this is the code of Sparta, then maybe it’s good the civilization never made it out of the BCs.
When Zach Snyder made the first 300, way back in 2006, what he had created was an inventive bonanza of hard-boiled mayhem. Yes, the first film had just as much violence, but the filmmaking was fresh, the style inventive, the visuals iconic. We had never seen anything like it, aside from maybe Sin City, which was its own brand of neo-comic anarchy. Since then, though, a glut of copycats have emerged: The Immortals and The Spirit, both aping (terribly) the graphic novel bandwagon. Many of the most obvious rip-offs were by Snyder himself, including The Watchmen and Sucker Punch, hyper-fantasies of 300’s overt simplicity in style and design.
Now here we are with 300: Rise of an Empire, another nail in this visual style’s lowering coffin. The sequel isn’t by Snyder — though, he produced and co-wrote the screenplay — and is instead directed by Noam Murro, who manages to make a 2014 movie look exactly like a 2006 movie. Give him a medal. Here he strips 300 of all its novelty and discovers that all he’s created is this stupendously awful sequel. What a difference eight years makes.
It begins where the last one left off: after the 300 Spartans, including Leonidas (Gerard Butler), are massacred at the Hot Gates, the Persian armies pour into Greece with Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) leading the charge atop his Fenway-sized throne heaved onto the shoulders of the most resilient slaves. Early parts of the movie focus on Xerxes, who is then abandoned altogether. Other early scenes contain prequel elements that flesh out minuscule details of the original film, details no one on the planet was curious about, like the name of that guy who’s kicked into that bottomless pit.
Eventually we get to Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), a Greek general who decides to help Sparta only after its bravest warriors have been ground into a crimson toothpaste. Themistokles groups an army and tries to button up the Greek coast to prevent a separate Persian army, one that seems to exist outside of Xerxes’ universe, from storming into Athens. This movie’s spatial awareness is difficult to follow, throughout. Locations seem to have large expanses between them, but then they’re on top of each other. The choppy editing magnifies this weird sense of place and distance.
I could tell you about other characters that float through the plot, but it would be needless punctuation to Rise of the Empire’s dyslexic grammar. Everyone looks alike, acts alike and dies alike. Even Lena Headey, so chillingly mad in Game of Thrones, seems bored here. If watching nondescript six-packed men in metal underwear clobber each other into pulpy stumps, the wounds spraying goopy chocolate syrup, then here’s a movie for you.The violence these men perpetrate is so constant that it turns into a steady drone of meaningless background noise. I mean, how many times can you really see a man get slashed by a sword? “A bzillion times,” Murro says from his fanboy pulpit.
Much of the dialogue is that over-emphasized, self-important chest-beating of the first movie: “An honorable death is all that we can ask for,” “We choose to die on our feet rather than live on our knees,” “There will be death and destruction,” and enough Braveheart “freedom” speeches to make even William Wallace beg for mercy. The dialogue gets worse when Eva Green, playing the seductive warrior Artemisia, turns up and takes it all to a whole new level. Green, bless her heart, plays the role like it’s Shakespeare and it’s oddly beautiful, if only because it’s the most garish, over-the-top bad performance of the year. Artemisia, who wears a breastplate with nipples stamped right into the bronze, seduces Themistokles and they engage in a sexual Olympics that deserves a trophy so awesome it will need to be smelted from the gold, silver and bronze medals. At one point in the movie, Artemisia slices off a man’s head, holds up the severed noggin and makes out with it.
Mostly, though, 300: Rise of an Empire is all heroic posturing and lots of talking of death. Isn’t getting killed in battle counterproductive to the cause? Remember that quote from Patton: “I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor bastard die for his.” Yeah, Gen. Patton would have hated these warriors, who obsess over their eventual defeat like it’s some sort of rite of passage.
Now, all of this negativity I’m blasting out doesn’t mean the movie looks terrible, because it really does. It just mostly looks like its predecessor, with very little advancement since then. That being said, some images are magnificent, including one of the utterly bland Stapleton sinking in an ocean filled with floating ship debris, and another of a tradesman carving the bark off a tree trunk, bits of tree and dust shooting up into the air and choking the frame with clouds of organic matter. The slow motion effects, overused by a factor of three, can also be quite thrilling, if only because the pictures are so overloaded with spectacle.
The 300 true believers — and there are many — will adore this movie. But that’s not saying much; they’d adore anything with shirtless men butchering other shirtless men. Everyone else, keep clear of this clunky behemoth and its violent swing.