The men with the digitally enhanced six-pack abs, barely there loincloths and grim expressions are back with 300: Rise of an Empire. Director Noam Murro tries to capitalise on the trend of sequels prevalent in Hollywood and the success of the first installation of the series with a movie that is part camp, part melodrama and mostly kitsch.
The story follows a somewhat creative look at the Greco-Persian war which took place in the fifth century BC and involves the Greek city states and the Persian empire. Xerxes, the Persian king, is in Greece to avenge the death of his father, Darius, at the battle of Marathon and expand his empire. The Greeks oppose him, principally King Leonidas of Sparta, played by Gerard Butler in a blink-and-you-will-miss-it cameo, and the Athenian politician Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), who it seems is more into coalition-building than rushing naked into the way of Persian spears and certain death.
The movie has a similar structure vis-à-vis 300, a ‘paraquel’ if you will. In the first installation, the source of the action was Leonidas, our protagonist and the Battle of Thermopylae and in this installment the story shifts to the Battle of Artemisium which strangely happened at the same time. Eventually it moves to the naval encounter, Salamis, which took place after the Battle of Thermopylae and is one of the most important events in history. The Spartans are only referred to as part of a narrative by Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and the main focus is on the Athenians (masters of naval warfare) and the Persian forces which are led inexplicably by Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek woman now firmly in the Persian corner.
The storyline is based on graphic novelist Frank Miller’s comic book Xerxes and though it labours to redo another sandals and blood epic, the result is an abysmal mélange of gore, bombastic dialogue and bare bodies. While 300 had a linear narrative in the way the story progressed, this installment delves straight into the action and never really pauses to set a strong premise. The slow motion action shots have been overdone and after a few kills you can anticipate every time the blood will splash generously across the screen, in a facile effort to emphasise that this is a no-holds-bar war cinematography. Rampant Orientalism is firmly entrenched, complete with suicide bombers and the insidious suggestion that Xerxes wants to conquer Greece because he is against freedom — a neo-conservative picture that would have Donald Rumsfeld crowing with delight. Even having Sullivan Stapleton do a stylised battle sequence on a horse in a bid to get some YouTube hits is unlikely to win any votes, since it’s a naval battle and horses aren’t particularly helpful when you are in deep water, literally and figuratively.
Another aspect one cannot overlook is the acting which is outright laughable as Eva Green tries very hard to play a tough gal, strutting around looking like an aging Goth aficionado and even kisses a decapitated head to make sure we know she means business but it is proved otherwise.
The movie does have its moments, albeit few and far in between. The Battle of Salamis is well-shot even if it involves too much visual effects which give a distinctive cartoonish aspect to the proceedings. The soundtrack theme signature which sounds like a ubiquitous wail is not of much help either.
Overall 300: Rise of an Empire is one long cliché, down to the father-son emotive battle sequence and numerous speeches about freedom and liberty a la Braveheart. This is a Grecian tragedy considering what could have been done if 300’s director, Zack Snyder, took a shot at it, but the man that launched a thousand spoofs had moved on. After watching the naked Greeks talking on for hours and sitting though the carnage wrought to the actual Greco-Persian war accounts, I wanted to do what the real Themistocles’s did: join the Persian side.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars.
Sibtain Naqvi is a freelance writer and an art critic. He tweets at @Sibtain_N.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 6th, 2014.