Skip to main content

Today I want to feel Themistokles’ throat beneath my boots.

300: Rise of an Empire
(2014)

300 didn’t particularly impress me, aside from highlighting that Zack Snyder is a visual stylist of some merit. One who desperately needs substance, and a guiding producer, to hold his excesses in check and keep him from turning every scene into yet more “cool shit”. However one milks it, 300 ends up as an ode to the fascistic, revelling in the world it creates to such an extent that it is never in danger of critiquing its Spartan heroes.  It’s also infused with an uneasy homoeroticism that expresses itself through rebuking anything weak or ugly or effeminate. This prequel/parallelquel/sequel isn’t necessarily superior – whatever one might say about 300, one wouldn’t be able to deny its rigorous sense of identity – but 300: Rise of an Empire is certainly less overtly objectionable.


The negative side of Rise of an Empire is that it goes through the motions of of its familiar themes, which mostly come down to old favourites honour and strategic prowess. It’s a rerun of 300, but with an army less insanely addled in their virulent fervour. Honour in death is no longer paramount, and this moderation results in a tempering of its predecessors more extreme elements, even if there’s no stinting on the bloody abandon.


Noam Murro effectively apes Snyder’s style, and green screen (there are some especially unlikely shafts of sunlight poking out all over the place, and a dirty great moon hovering heaving into the sea) making this cheerfully bloodthirsty and replete with now-retro speed ramping. There’s also added 3D, a particularly annoyingly intrusive choice when watching it without one of those dimensions.


But this prequel business has always been on to a loser. A painfully hamfisted method of cashing in that no one was usually demanding, and proved it by not showing up (Dumb and Dumberer, Viva Rock Vegas). The miracle is, Rise of an Empire works as well as it does. Much of that is down Eva Green giving it some welly, and the Persians (although she’s Greek) a face and motivation. She’s ever intense, striking and superior, and her breasts are as impressively unyielding as we’ve come to expect. At one point she even kisses a head she has just severed. She also kicks ass with two swords.


On the downside, the heroic leader that is Themistokles is a complete plank, which at least serves to give Butler some credit for what he brought to the original. Aussie actor Sullivan Stapleton (who, it seems, Luc Besson wants to turn into the next Stat; he’s no Stat!) barely registers, either in terms of performance or looks. He could be almost anyone, and you probably won’t recognise him next time he shows up in something. He can’t compete with Green, and, crucially, we have difficulty believing all the glory talk about what an amazing strategist he is. 


This is a fundamental weakness, a more damaging one than a screenplay that leaps about the place with scant regard for how it affects narrative momentum (actually, this leaping about at least keeps the attention, even if it fails to satisfy the dramatic whole). Additionally, when it comes down to it, Sullivan is called upon to extol the same boring old crap about dying a freeman rather than living a slave.


The main survivors of the original return, led by Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo (not the 1961 monster movie). Headey is in particularly teeth-gritting form, which is to say, incredibly wooden. This works okay for the narrated sequences, but when she’s on screen she comes up short. There’s also David Whenham, back without an eye and not filmed below the neck, presumably because it was too much bother to grow back his abs (as far as I could discern). Andrew Tiernan plays a slightly less hideous Ephialtes, and one who is offered a meagre redemption that would have been unthinkable to tone of the original movie.


The interweaving storylines and time periods aren’t exactly handled with panache or sleight of hand, but they do result in several arresting sequences. We hear Gorgo describe the battle of Marathon, and, even with the underwhelming Stapleton, the exploits of Themistokles are engrossing (complete with made-up Persian presence). Later, the narrated story of Artemsia, and the birth of god-Xerxes, are equally involving.


The claim to distinction of Rise of an Empire is sea battles instead of infantry face-offs. If this doesn’t quite lead to a Master and Commander matching of wits, it shouldn’t be a surprise, but neither is it without moments (the setting alight of the ships is particularly strong), including an interlude where Artemisia attempts to seduce Themistokles during a tête-à-tête (the look that passes between two masked guards, on hearing the sounds from within the cabin, is one of the few amusing moments on display here).


Jack O’Connell might be considered the Fassbender of this pre/sequel, except that he’s already better known than the Fass was at that point and this doesn’t actually do him any favours. He isn’t at his best spouting earnest clichés, on the evidence of this, and should probably stick to fare that gives him something meatier to bite into (Callan Mulvey, as his dad, is more convincing).


Along the way, there are horses stepping on heads, heads split in two, and too numerous dismemberments to be relayed. Junkie XL furnishes some memorable aural beats, but seems obsessed with attaching himself to mediocre movies (Paranoia was another one he got his musical chops around).


Where does this leave the classical Greece at the movies? Its history is mythologised and its myth is historicised. It’s a mixed up, muddled up ancient world. Here there’s a man transformed into a demi-god and a genuine, bona fide sea serpent. Take that Hercules! Or was the latter just part of Themistokles’ nightmare? The Greek myths have been cinematically disembowelled. Greek history has been six-packed up to its eyeballs and left bereft of brains or subtleties. Someone should try making something other than Frank Miller’s version.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Are you, by any chance, in a trance now, Mr Morrison?

The Doors (1991) (SPOILERS) Oliver Stone’s mammoth, mythologising paean to Jim Morrison is as much about seeing himself in the self-styled, self-destructive rebel figurehead, and I suspect it’s this lack of distance that rather quickly leads to The Doors becoming a turgid bore. It’s strange – people are , you know, films equally so – but I’d hitherto considered the epic opus patchy but worthwhile, a take that disintegrated on this viewing. The picture’s populated with all the stars it could possibly wish for, tremendous visuals (courtesy of DP Robert Richardson) and its director operating at the height of his powers, but his vision, or the incoherence thereof, is the movie’s undoing. The Doors is an indulgent, sprawling mess, with no internal glue to hold it together dramatically. “Jim gets fat and dies” isn’t really a riveting narrative through line.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.