300: Rise of an Empire
Director: Noam Murro / Screenplay: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad (from Frank Miller’s graphic novel) / Editing: David Brenner, Wyatt Smith / DP: Simon Duggan / Music: Junkie XL
Cast: Sullivan Stapleton / Eva Green / Lena Headey / Hans Matheson / David Wenham / Callan Mulvey / Rodrigo Santoro / Jack O’Connell
The Old Cut & Thrust of Politics…
If you’re any kind of movie lover, the chances are high that you’ll have seen Zack Snyder’s 2006 adaptation of Frank Miller’s epic, groundbreaking graphic novel 300. Even now, thirteen years since it appeared, there’s been little since to rival its blend of brutal, stylised live-action within, err, brutal, stylised CGI sets. Or its bold, restricted palette and a hackneyed – but undeniably stirring – script, delivered in a star-making fashion by an actor all-but giggling at his own swagger.
Taking inspiration from the earlier adaptation of Miller’s Sin City (2005), Snyder and his team picked-up where Robert Rodriguez left-off and delivered lightning-in-a-bottle that split audience opinion. Love or hate 300, it’s hard to deny it a place in the action-movie canon.
So, you’d think that a sequel would’ve followed hard on its heels, right? Wrong! By the time Miller had an idea for one, 300’s momentum had all-but vanished. Undeterred, the producers opted to go again: given just how much the original had returned, a return to the well was deemed a worthy risk. Not that there wouldn’t be changes…
Let’s start with the most obvious: the script. 300 dealt almost exclusively with the vainglorious efforts of Spartan King Leonidas to thwart the advance of a vast Persian army under its King, Xerxes. For the sequel – 300: Rise of an Empire – author Miller covered another front of Xerxes’ invasion that, historians believe, occurred during Leonidas’ three days of stubborn resistance: the great sea-battle of Salamis. In this decisive encounter, the Greek fleet (smaller in-number and equipped with tough, but ungainly ‘Trireme’ galleys), attempted to defeat a numerically-overwhelming Persian armada. So, the script now adopts two new principal characters: the Greek Politician & Naval Commander Themistocles (played by Australian action star Sullivan Stapleton) who’s pitched against his opposite number: Artemisia (Eva Green): it’s safe to say that, in this movie, the portrayals of these historical figures are accurate in-name only…
In the lead role, is Sullivan Stapleton: a b-movie actor who’s immediate problem remains unsolved for the entire picture: he’s not Gerard Butler… So synonymous is Butler with this franchise, that even now, over a decade and any number of mediocre movies to his credit further on, the role that made him still defines him. Stapleton’s got no chance here: even his six-pack looks like it’s missing a can or two… The script gives few chances for him to extemporise, bellow or otherwise show-off on the biggest stage his career’s yet-seen and as a result, Themistocles is little more than an animated mannequin. Butler was little better, but his tongue was never far from his cheek…
Against him, we have the brave, balls-out Eva Green as Artemisia, whom she plays as a blood-crazed harpy. There’s one scene that might yet come to define Green’s inevitable ‘wilderness years’ when, having effortlessly separated a man’s head from his blood-gouting neck, she plants a smacker on his lifeless (though doubtless, still-warm) lips. Had Empire been a Carry-On movie, this would’ve been the moment where the severed head winks-to-camera…
Keen to remind us that Empire is happening concurrently with the events of 300, the film-makers promoted the notion of this being less of a sequel and more of an ‘e-quel’. At times, you get the feeling they’re desperate to include links back to the original film, if only to validate Empire’s very existence as much as reminding us why we’re here in the first place. So, we get the return of Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo (Leonidas’ new widow) and David Wenham’s salty Dilios, in scant, underwritten parts that must’ve taken all of a day to shoot. There’s even a scattering of CGI-conjured shots of Leonidas himself, seen training before the battle of Thermopylae. I’m sure the producers would’ve had him re-animated as a zombie, if they’d had a free hand: it’s that kind of a movie.
With the premise of the film only connected tangentially with the original, the writers have an uphill struggle to carve-out a new – yet related – story. The result is a lengthy opening VO from Gorgo, as she relates the origin story of how Persian aggression against Greece was originally checked, by Themistocles himself, ten years earlier at the Battle of Marathon. This humiliating defeat of then-King Darius, festers in the soul of Xerxes, his heir, who returns a decade later to finish the job his father started.
This sets-up a seemingly non-stop parade of OTT action-sequences, each as crisply-choreographed as before but this time staged at-sea, aboard Greek Triremes and Persian war-galleys. At times, the production’s ambition knows no-bounds: there’s a slave-powered oil-tanker, that creates a flammable slick. Suicide bombers. Ships that hurtle towards engagement atop tidal waves: anything to inject ‘brutal-artistry’ and momentum to a film.
Then we glimpse the Persian capital; a stylised fantasy, over which Xerxes (a self-aware Roberto Rodrigo) struts and thunders, wearing an array of S&M inspired gold chains, assorted dog-collars and a pair of gold-lamé underpants, topped-off with some dangly headgear, in a homoerotic melange last seen in that notorious Dunlop ad of the late Nineties.
Alongside the overblown, there’s also unexpected authenticity. The design of the Greek Trireme, for example, is based on a working, full-sized replica, yet what authenticity there is, is washed-away by everything else: a shame, given the picture offers little else but its production values. The film doesn’t even look as good as 300. The original had a palette starkly divided between the Spartan’s earth-tones & scarlet and the burnished gold & black of Xerxes’ legions (not forgetting his own bling). Yet here, Themistocles is lumbered with a cloak of teal blue; a colour that sets the tone for these non-Spartan Greeks and which, against the midnight blues & blacks of Artemisia’s forces, fails to generate anything like as much visual contrast, to the point where it feels monochromatic. Even the blood, when it’s spilt, doesn’t impress second-time-around. Throw-in a score by Junkie XL that might be a remixed sample of Mongolian throat-singing and you have a movie that, if nothing else, proves that sometimes, more is less…
Snyder returns as little more than a producer and co-writer for Empire, perhaps realising the moment had passed. Instead, Israeli Director Noam Murro was hired, to interpret a script co-written by Snyder and original collaborator Kurt Johnstad; both writers working-off Miller’s then-unpublished sequel ‘Xerxes’.
Murro made his name as a Director of commercials and, whilst that career-path has produced more than its fair share of noted Directors of narrative-features (i.e. Ridley Scott, Edgar Wright & Michael Cimino to name just three), Empire is NO calling-card. He doesn’t direct his scenes, so much as re-frame animated tableaux, populated with human ciphers rather than human beings. For example, take the ridiculous sex-scene between Themistocles & Artemisia. We know – because the script has shown as much – that there’s both mutual respect and loathing between the pair of them and that Artemisia’s allure is a weapon every bit as potent as her twin swords: but as-played, it’s about as erotic as a dead-cat-bounce.
Teenage boys – the intended constituency of the film’s audience – will be dazzled by the swordplay, gratuitous flashes of ‘tits & arse’ (cynically moderated for its ‘15’ certificate) and the overall, empty spectacle. For everyone else? When are you going to fix that wonky shelf in the spare room?
Persian Emissary: Artemisia’s ship is anchored in neutral waters. She’d like to meet with Themistocles.
Greek Boy: How can you guarantee his safety?
Persian Emissary: Well, boy, the only honour for her now, will be when she watches your crushed and broken fleet sink to the bottom of the Aegean and is able to recognise you, nailed to the mast of your ship with her sword, as you descend to a watery grave.
Themistocles: Why didn’t you just say that to begin with?