It’s been eight years since the release of Zach Snyder’s beefcake epic 300 put movie buffs on notice that the future of action cinematography was endless slow-motion, excruciating speed ramping, and ever more phony-baloney green-screen tableaux. That might not seem like a long time, but in Hollywood terms it’s a freaking eon. It only took two more years than that before Sony kicked Sam Raimi to the curb and rebooted the Spider-Man series entirely with a younger, cuter director. So maybe Zack Snyder is lucky Warner Bros. greenlighted a straightforward sequel to 300 rather than handing a remake to Fede Alvarez or somebody.
Then again, Snyder has been Warner Bros. royalty ever since the release of 300, which earned nearly half a billion box-office dollars and thus bought Snyder the benefit of the doubt, even in the shadowed valleys of Watchmen and Sucker Punch. The studio eventually hired fellow WB aristocrat Christopher Nolan to look in on him on the superhero front, but ultraviolent ancient history remains Snyder’s purview. What he delivers here in his capacities as producer, screenwriter, and resident WB visionary is basically more of the same, with some tweaks for better and worse.
First, the bad news. The screenplay by Snyder and 300 co-screenwriter Kurt Johnstad is just about as dumb as the screenplay for 300, and it hits most of the same glory-of-battle and notes. The Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) is reinvented here as a warrior who fells the Persian king Darius with one well-aimed arrow before commanding a small flotilla in a suicide mission against the overpowering Persian navy. The exposition is stiflingly dull, hitting the key thematic points, underlining them, and highlighting them in blood red. It’s the kind of movie that features flashbacks to events in its own first act, as if concerned that you may have forgotten them, were too stupid to register them the first time, or simply too shiftless to make it into the theater during the first reel.
Despite Snyder’s presence behind the scenes, 300: Rise of an Empire has a new director, Noam Murro, and it’s a different kind of film. It’s less focused on pure imagery, like the first film’s slavish recreations of frames from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, and more conventionally staged. Murro apes some of Snyder’s excesses, including the geysers of reddish-brown blood that that splatter and cascade through the frames. There’s one shot where an Athenian soldier leaps from what seems like an imprudent height to tackle a soldier far below, and the camera follows him, peering over his shoulder all the way down. But, maybe because Miller’s source material for this film remains unfinished and thus didn’t serve as quite so rigid a storyboard, Rise of an Empire has a looser style. That may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you felt about the first film’s relentless visual intensity.
One distinct advantage Murro has is the stereo 3D image. Watching the first film, I was constantly aware that I was watching a bunch of actors performing in front of a green screen in a warehouse somewhere in Canada, with flat digital backdrops plastered behind them in post. In 3D, the image has a depth forced on it that makes the backgrounds blend a little more credibly with the foreground action, and while the twinkling dust motes and glowing embers floating through the air during many shots can be distracting, they are also convincing markers of depth that help make the digitally layered image more palatable.
Murro’s film also has less of its predecessor’s sense of gay panic, partly because the flamboyant enemy leader Xerxes is treated less like an inexplicable freak show this time around, but also because it features a woman in a key role — Eva Green as Persian military adviser Artemisia, who commands Xerxes’ fearsome seafaring forces. Snyder took a lot of flack for the half-baked sexy-girl fantasia that was Sucker Punch, but he obviously cares about female characters, and Artemisia is a welcome addition to 300‘s mythology, even if her character does spring from the stereotypical sewer of rape and degradation that’s so often the catalyzing force behind female bad-assedness in pop culture. She is ambitious, with a cleverness to match, and though she insinuates herself into Xerxes’ inner circle through outright treachery, she is absolutely competent and the film never undermines her authority. Moreover, Green invests the role with a fierceness that reads as confidence rather than hysteria, whether she’s challenging the authority of her boss, having the architects of failed strategies chucked into the briny depths, or playing in the semi-nude with an unhinged sexual rapaciousness. Green has long been a terrific actress, and she’s even better than you might imagine in a full-throated role that verges on the grindhouse. More than any other element, her performance elevates the film from the doldrums of its hermetic conception and execution.
SPOILER TERRITORY: Of course, since this is a story of Greek self-determination in the face of Persian tyranny, Artemisia eventually gets the sharp end of the sword. Calling back to the coitus interruptus status of Green’s earlier, ferocious sex scene with the otherwise bland Stapleton (he emerges from the encounter with an amusingly shell-shocked stare plastered on his gob, as if he’s just witnessed a paranormal event), Artemisia’s death comes from a different kind of impalement — penetration at last. When she falls to her knees before Themistocles, the metaphor for sexual submission is obvious (and a little obnoxious, but never mind). At one point earlier in the film, Themistocles has nixed the possibility of surrender by declaring it better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees, a cringeworthy resort to cliché that recalls the first film’s retreat into platitudes like “freedom isn’t free.” I’d wonder if the use of a quote attributed to the Mexican peasant revolution leader Emiliano Zapata were a deliberate apologia for 300‘s pro-Iraq War pleasantries, but that’s a stretch. On the evidence, Zack Snyder’s vision is about as political as a corn dog. But one of Artemisia’s lines during her final mano-a-mano with Themistocles — “You fight harder than you fuck” — is striking in its R-rated abandon. Assuming Snyder wrote that, it’s just possible that he’s developing a sense of humor to go with his taste for the absurd. Given the overwhelmingly dour state of WB comic-book movies being produced by the Snyder-Nolan axis, that’s probably worth being thankful for.