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

Movie

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 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 ham-fisted method of cashing in that no one was usually demanding, and proved it by not showing up (Dumb and DumbererViva 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 Stath; he’s no Stath!) 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 Wenham, 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.

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