300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE sounds like it would be the name of a DTV prequel to 300, from the producers of DEATH RACE 2. In fact it is a major, successful theatrical release and it is a sepremidquel. A sepremidquel is of course a followup that starts out after the first movie, then skips back to before it and goes into during it (with references to some of those events) and then continues a little bit after it too. You may be sick of sepremidquels, but I think it was a clever way to continue a movie where all the main characters were horribly killed.
This is the story of Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton, ANIMAL KINGDOM), Athenian politician and warrior who (in this movie, not in history) became legendary for landing a sweet long distance arrow on King Darius of Persia during the Battle of Marathon. He dreams of a United Greece, tries to recruit others to his cause (gets there just after Leonidas left, oh well) and leads a sea battle going on at the same time as Leonidas and the 300 (who make a cameo here filled with arrows and being snacked on by a crow) are fighting their Battle of Thermal Monopoly or whatever.
Along with Themistokles’s rise in the military we see how part 1 villain Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) went from a regular dude to the Dennis Rodman-esque “God King” with the help of Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek orphan adopted by Darius and trained in combat to ultimately become the ruthless commander of Xerxe’s navy.
Other characters from the first one return. Leonidas’s widow Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) actually has a bigger part this time because she narrates so much at the beginning I started to worry that she thought she was in GOODFELLAS. We see some of Leonidas’s men, I think. Wasn’t there a guy with a bandage over his eye? Yeah, we see that guy. The Persian messenger who Leonidas kicked into the pit (Peter Mensah) is the sweetheart who rescued Artemisia from near death and trained her to fight, a cool way to retroactively add even more “oh jesus, these Spartans are intense”ness to the first one. The hunchback (Andrew Tiernan) is back, now with improved Gollum-esque big-eye movement. Forgive me, fellow patrons of the Sunday matinee at the Meridian 16, for laughing when the messenger shouted “Leonidas was betrayed by a hunchback!” You just don’t hear that sort of thing yelled with such seriousness too often.
Didn’t the first one have a weird dude with a bull’s head or something? That guy is not back. Maybe he’ll get his due in part 3. There are probly fewer monsters, but a couple new beasties including a brief appearance by giant fish monsters. The Persian ninjas with the scary metal masks are back and used for an amazing sight gag.
Zack Snyder didn’t direct this time, but he did produce and co-write the script with Kurt Johnstad and inspiration from comics person Frank Miller (THE SPIRIT, ROBOCOP 3). Johnstad was the guy who wrote part 1 as well as ACT OF VALOR and, I have just learned, a Daniel Bernhardt movie called TRUE VENGEANCE. (Anybody seen that? it’s a little pricey for a blind buy.) The director this time is Noam Murro, whose only previous feature is the indie comedy SMART PEOPLE, so it must be all the commercials he’s done that give him the visual chops to so convincingly imitate and expand on Snyder’s uniquely stylized (and slo-mo heavy) visuals from the first one.
The 3D version is a post-convert I believe but some of it looks good because there’s so much digital stuff in there and there are few if any shots without some kind of debris floating in the air – dust, embers, splashes of water, rain, fog, or some combination of the aforementioned. And lots of blood flying.
The battles – and there are more of them than in most movies – are extremely well done. So many sword and sandal movies, even before the post-action era, make due with a bunch of guys running at each other screaming followed by a dull blur of chaotic clanging. Murro tends to focus on Themistokles or another character as he travels through the crowd, documenting each swing, duck, block, stab or smash. Each move is a strategy or a response to another move, more graceful than just swinging swords back and forth.
I love the one where he rides a horse over a boat, the camera leaves him only to show how close Artemisia is on her boat, and that they’re making eye contact, then it goes back and follows his horse jumping in the water and then onto her boat…
Because so much of the battle is at sea it’s very different from and, to me, often more interesting than the fights in 300. There’s the same type of sword play but with many tactics involving jumping to and from ships, ramming ships, blowing things up, etc. And I’m glad I wasn’t thinking of this as an allegory about the western world vs. the middle east, because I was able to enjoy the badassness of the Persian elite warriors who, when you think about it, are basically suicide bombers.
Part of the fun is that the movie embraces the R-rating like a Spartan embraces death in battle. There are many severings of heads and limbs, swords entering one side of a body and exiting the other, live people turning into effects in the same shot, understanding computers as a way to do things that couldn’t be done with latex alone instead of as a cheap way to not have to bother with it. Blood spews in myriad ways, looking less artificial than in the first movie, from what I remember, but continuing in its quest to bring painterly beauty to every spray or gush. Every blood geyser is unique, like a snowflake.
Ah, fuck, I knew I recognized Murro’s name for somewhere. I just read that he was attached to A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD for a while but left when this one seemed more likely to happen. What I wouldn’t give for action scenes this clear instead of those things that Jonathan Moore put in where action scenes would’ve gone.
Like with Gerard Butler when I first saw 300 I didn’t recognize Stapleton from other movies, but he’s pretty cool and looks like Robert Patrick with muscles (prediction: will play a Terminator in the new Terminator movie). I suppose this is more on the costume designer than on the acting performance but I like that Themistokles wears a blue cape, making him instantly identifiable in any sea of muddy pecs and abs.
Themistokles is the main character but there is no denying that this is Artemisia’s movie, and Eva Green’s. You know how Eva Green is, if she wants it we’ll give it to her. I don’t know what it is but she just has that thing, something in her eyes I think. She also happens to be the perfect woman for the world of 300. She’s usually scary-hot, here she’s evil-hot. Her face is in a constant scowl of disgust, she has scars on her face and neck, you know she’s gotta have some serious armpit smell, and yet/therefore there are few of us who would have the fortitude to resist her. In one scene she beheads a guy, then kisses him on the lips. For mercy’s sake you hope it fell within that few seconds when the head is still conscious.
One of the best scenes in the movie, maybe the best, is when Artemisia calls Themistokles to her boat and tries to recruit him like the Emperor trying to recruit Luke. Except sexier. Of course she’s showing a little cleavage, a little leg, standing real close to him, finding excuses to touch him. He’s obviously tempted, tortured even, but he has a family at home, a nation to unite, a war to win. So he pulls away and he (SPOILER) just kidding, he grabs her and fucks her all over the room and against the walls. It’s violent sex and battle music plays as he grabs her and tries to go from behind, but she counters and throws him on his back to get on top. He turns into a total animal but then refuses her offer and gets kicked to the curb without finishing. That’s what makes this a great sword and sandal movie is that it has a scene where the hero has to return to his men with that shameful look of immediate regret after letting his dick take over.
It’s a sex scene loaded with meaning and that brings me to the other reason Artemisia is a great mythical character: if her side weren’t trying to conquer a smaller country she’d be the hero. I know the Athenians, unlike the Spartans, say they believe in democracy and freedom and life after war. Remember, these are the so-called pussies Leonidas made fun of for being farmers, poets and potters (they make a joke about it). And I don’t want to be racist or elitist but it’s kinda nice to be away from the Spartans for a while, you know what I mean? Nice to occasionally hear about a topic other than Sparta, Sparta, war, Sparta, or Sparta.
But despite all the fancy talk these Athenians are as brutal in their fight as Artemisia is, and she has a really good reason to hate her fellow Greeks: they raped and killed her family in front of her, raped her (as a child!) and left her for dead in the street. And then the Persian king saved her and gave her a good life and then Themistokles fuckin killed him. I mean, I don’t agree with all of her choices but I’m kinda siding with her. I like that in a movie.
You know who she reminds me of a little bit is Angelina Jolie’s cave demon in BEOWULF, a scary badass woman who men are too stupid to resist, who has been horribly wronged by men, has legitimate grievances but is treated as the bad guy. In the case of BEOWULF this is subtle but I believe definitely intentional, it’s a theme throughout the movie that the men refuse to take responsibility for their actions. In a 300 movie everybody is just gonna assume it’s stupidity, but whatever the intent I appreciate that both movies take on the perspective of the Spartans telling the stories, and treat their macho world view as reality.
When the first one came out I wondered why Snyder didn’t seem to care how the politics of the story would be read in a time of war. By now it’s easier for me to just enjoy it as a tale of extreme macho in a heightened world. But if any warmongers embrace it as a sincere statement of their philosophy like they did the first one I’d be interested to hear their thoughts on the use of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (remixed with movie score) on the end credits. Are they really happy that “the war machine keeps turning” as their “generals gather in their masses, just like witches at black masses”? I don’t know, is it possible that Murro sees the black humor behind these brave heroes speaking nobly to promote endless cyclical brutality?
It doesn’t really matter, because it’s there. I kinda loved this movie.
Historical note: Most of these war pigs would have disspointed Leonidas, because they didn’t die in battle. King Darius died from a disease (not an arrow) some time after (not during) the Battle of Marathon. Themistocles died of natural causes (or suicidal poisoning according to some legends) at the age of 65. Xerxes was assassinated by a bodyguard (with help from a eunuch – I know this isn’t p.c., but you guys know how the fuckin eunuchs are). Legend has Artemisia (who really was a female naval commander, so good for her) jumping off a cliff over a dude, though in my opinion that’s bullshit and she’s still alive and even looks pretty good for her age. Long live Artemisia.