Lots of people loved 300. But then again, lots of people loved Cliff Richard’s Millennium Prayer.
Landing in multiplexes almost exactly seven years ago (yes, honestly – seven!), 300 not only proved itself a surprisingly blubbery box office whale for backers Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, it also attracted acclaim as a visually spectacular take on the greatest last stand in the whole history of warfare: that staged by the Spartans at Thermopylae.
Me? I wasn’t so fussed. And not just because the movie’s success served to firmly ensconce its director, Zack Snyder, in all our movie-going lives, where he’s stubbornly remained ever since, like some frat-boy incarnation of the Cat in the sodding Hat.
No, so far as I was concerned, sitting through 300 felt all a bit much like watching the relentlessly bellowing Hawkmen from Flash Gordon go up against a 10-foot-tall Ming the Merciless. Or to put it another way, a whole circus of silliness squeezed into several dozen pairs of too-small underpants.
As a result, I approached the new 300 movie, Rise of an Empire, with a healthy degree of suspicion, even bearing in mind the fact that Snyder’s was not the tush sat in the director’s chair this time round (though he does still serve as co-writer and producer). The buttocks of authority instead belong to Noam Murro, the man behind a fistful of award-winning Halo promos and that recent Guinness ad with the wheelchair basketball team.
Murro is not the only 300 new boy (or girl – more on whom in a minute): with the Spartans having been left looking like semi-pornographic pin cushions by the Persian archers, the narrative focus shifts to their neighbours to the east, the Athenians, led by Themistokles (usually anglicised as Themistocles), who is played by Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton.
Now, the actual Themistokles was a man described by early historian Thucydides as possessing ‘a supreme talent for arriving at the correct solution to a crisis at precisely the correct moment’, and it’s a quality shared by Sullivan’s Athenian… so long as ‘correct solution’ is always and unfailingly interpreted as lopping the head off any and every Persian to pass within sword-swinging reach.
Setting the bloodthirsty tone is the movie’s opening set-piece, the Battle of Marathon, at which the Greek victory is portrayed as being not down to the armour and discipline of their phalanx, but rather thanks to Themistokles haring off on a solo kill-spree, leaving mutilated corpses in his wake like he’s an unhinged Monty Python anorak recreating the Sir Lancelot wedding massacre from Holy Grail.
The sequence culminates with Themistokles firing the arrow which slays the Persian king, Darius (Igal Naor) – which, incidentally, is the ancient world equivalent of Tom Hanks hopping off at Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan to shoot Hitler in his single, solitary knacker.
That natty little bit of regicide leaves Darius’s son and heir, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, reprising his role from 300), swearing vengeance against all Greece. And look! He’s got a helper in his mission to harden that dream of destruction into devastating reality, in the comely shape of Artemisia (Eva Green).
A black-hearted harpy who in one early scene kisses the lips of a head she’s just severed, Artemisia is the most outlandishly attired big screen villainess since Fatima Blush in Never Say Never Again, as well as also being one of the most watchable things in Rise of an Empire.
Green can be something of an acquired taste, as anyone who sat through Franklyn will testify to, but here she’s just about the only performer to rise above the torpor of the scripted dialogue provided by Snyder and his co-writer, Kurt Johnstad (like its predecessor, Rise is adapted from a source comic book by Frank Miller). Fully embracing the epic lunacy of the 300 universe, the erstwhile Bond girl is the movie’s gleefully evil star turn, putting her male co-stars firmly in the shade in the process.
And interchangeably tedious as all the Athenian dullards are, it’s Sullivan who’s the worst offender, spending his time as he does alternating between semi-apologetic mumbling and doing his best bad impression of a shouty Gerard Butler doing his best bad impression of a shouty Russell Crowe. If the real Themistokles had been so bereft of inspirational quality, the Athenian resistance would have been finished quicker than Britney Spears’ first marriage.
For his part, first-time blockbuster director Murro works hard to make the most of his big chance – or at least his legion of VFX techs do, via such balls-out flourishes as the single hyperkinetic shot of a mounted Themistokles launching himself across, through and under several ablaze ships as he races to confront Artemisia.
True to history, most of the scrapping takes place at sea, with the battles of Artemisium (fought concurrently with Thermopylae) and Salamis both getting the 300 treatment. It’s all as visually OTT as might be expected, with grandiose CG-heavy action which surpasses that seen in the first film. The blood flows like ketchup during the lunchtime rush at Burger King, but the unceasing slo-mo does become trying; without it, the movie would probably be over in 45 minutes.
Similarly wearying are the movie’s dodgy politics. The conflict at the heart of the story is incessantly pitched as a titanic struggle between people who would be free (like the employees of Time Warner Inc., presumably) and a decadent empire which exchanges gold for abject servitude (unlike Time Warner Inc., presumably).
What this means in practice is that Rise of an Empire, like 300 before it, is suffused with the odious stench of buff, self-determined white people being pitted against mindless swarthy foreigners.
300: Rise of an Empire is out in the UK on 7 March