Sunday, March 9, 2014

"300: Rise Of An Empire" Review: Tremble Before The Might And Beauty That Is Eva Green

Zack Snyder's film adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel 300 rocked theaters when it was released in 2006. Snyder had just scored a hit with the surprisingly solid Dawn of the Dead remake and Miller's big screen version of Sin City which he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez was the first real indication that his work could indeed be translated to film with near shot for shot perfection. In short, much of 300's success hinged on being released at the right time and in the right place.

There were other powers at play that made 300 successful as well, such as being one of the first big budget event films to drop in the formerly calm waters of March and taking the month by storm. Looking unlike any other movie before it and being an R rated, testosterone fueled spectacle where men were men and said men gleefully killed each other in one bloody encounter after another. Now, just like the Persian army invading Greece, we have a somewhat unexpected sequel knocking at our door that is missing nearly all the creative forces that made the first film such a hit. Could this sequel possibly ever live up to the level of expectations that first film put upon it? Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: Cinema City
Time:8:00 pm, March 6, 2014       
Projector Type: Digital 2D         
Film Rating: R          
Film Runtime: 1 hr 41 min    
Studio: Warner Bros.

Loves: Eva Green
Likes: 300, Zack Snyder
Neutral: Sequels that rely too much on the original for their vision, slo-mo fights
Hates: That Eva Green isn't a superstar yet
If you like Eva Green in this: Check out The Dreamers, Kingdom of Heaven (Dir. Cut), Casino Royale and Perfect Sense

Transpiring simultaneously while King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans defend the Hot Gates against the Persian army and their God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), we find Greece's champion Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) defending the borders of the Greek nation against the Persian navy led by the bloodthirsty and vengeful Artemisia (Eva Green) and her enormous fleet of warships. Facing similarly bleak odds, Themistokles takes his inferior forces and charges into a battle that he and his men will likely not survive unless Greece and Sparta can find a way to work together and defeat their common enemy.

The original 300 was a visually striking film. From its silhouetted imagery that miraculously mirrored the pages of the graphic novel it was based on, to director Zack Snyder's trademark slow motion action sequences that would eventually become the most overused effect in Hollywood since The Matrix's bullet-time, the film was rightfully praised for its bold and unique look. Sadly, that is the only thing that has held up over time (well, that and those abs), as other areas such as its over reliance on action and style over substance have proven to be an unfortunate hindrance to a film that at one time was hailed by many as a violent work of art.

So, when it was announced that nearly 8 years later we were getting a sequel it didn't quite get the reception it would have if it were released in closer proximity to the original when its many flaws were still hidden beneath the visual spectacle that it was. Beyond just being ill-timed however, a sequel to 300 didn't feel needed as the original film told its simple tale in a way that left little room for any new territory that could be exploited aside from watching more Spartans going to battle against the Persian army, which is needed just as much as a sequel to Braveheart is.

Low and behold, the sequel 300: Rise of an Empire (henceforth to be known as ROAE) has indeed found a new story to tell that does add some interesting side notes and intricacies to the original film, but that is all it does unfortunately. Despite director Noam Murro labored efforts to try and integrate the story of Themistokles with the story of King Leonidas from the first film, the few successes he manages to bring to the table (one of which being the casting of Eva Green), ROAE never feels like its own film and is almost purposefully at times comparing itself to the original film in which it hopelessly pales in comparison.

The cool and groundbreaking visual style of the original film was fresh 8 years ago, but when seeing it used now in ROAE it has the unfortunate side effect of feeling old and antiquated. That's not to say the film looks bad, there are a number of sequences that are simply jaw dropping in their violent beauty, but it just doesn't have the same impact it did back then. Watching soldiers run into battle in slow motion no longer looks cool, it just makes us check our watches wondering how long until they reach their enemy. Once again, ROAE mirrors the lessened impact the Matrix sequels had on audiences who had already been wowed but the admittedly refined and sleek effects on display.

Likewise with the violence itself, which at one time was shocking and gleeful in all its bloody mayhem, now feels somewhat tame and par for the course. Blame it on films like Saw or television shows like The Walking Dead for pushing the envelope beyond what that original film did, but that doesn't stop ROAE from feeling like it is holding back even when it clearly isn't. The CG blood spatters don't help much either, which almost always look out of place and cheap when they shoot out of severed limbs and come flying at the screen.

The casting of Gerald Butler as King Leonidas was one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances (that Butler has sadly squandered since then). So, it was almost certain that whomever they cast as the lead in ROAE was being asked to fail before even given a chance. Stapleton as Themistokles is a far cry from the awesomeness that was Butler in the original, but he does make for a decent hero to follow into battle and proves to be adequate enough in the end. The writing doesn't help him much either, as his rousing speeches to his men lack the passion and force that was behind every word Leonidas spoke to his Spartans (there is nothing that even comes close to classics such as "Tonight, we dine in hell!" or "Give them NOTHING, but take from them EVERYTHING!"), but thankfully we get a whole other kind of awesome that makes this all easy to overlook.

The original 300 had plenty of villains and bad guys, the most notable being Xerxes. But they were forgettable at best as they were dispatched one by one by the Spartans. Even Xerxes himself came off as more of a figurehead than an actual threat, so his eventual defeat of the 300 felt somewhat hollow because of it (although, we do get a welcomed backstory for how he became a God-King here). Every story needs a good villain, and this is the one and only place that ROAE trumps the original. Casting Eva Green as Artemisia is just about the same kind of brilliance that placed Butler in his role as Leonidas 8 years prior.

Eva Green has been criminally underused by the film industry since her appearance as the best Bond girl of all time in Casino Royale. She has appeared in a number of smaller scale films such as Perfect Sense and Cracks that despite being great films in their own right, could never tap into the raw talent that Green possessed. Hollywood is even more to blame for her continued obscurity by placing her in trash such as Dark Shadows where even in such a horrible film she was able to shine somehow. But now, with her performance in ROAE, aside from bringing some much needed girl power to this sausagefest, the world can finally see why she must be recognized for the immense talent that she is.

Her Artemisia is vicious, conniving, ruthless, calculating, beautiful and above all else, she is a fierce warrior and tactician. But none of those words would mean nothing if it weren't for Green, who absolutely steals the film from everyone and makes all of those qualities believable in a way that would have even the truest of heart question their loyalties for her. Even when she isn't on screen you will be finding yourself counting the minutes until she returns and when she does, it just makes it hurt that much more when we return to Themistokles and his Greek warriors who are blank slates in comparison. Beyond Green's numerous talents, the character of Artemisia makes for a formidable opponent and one that we look forward to seeing be taken down.

Whether it is watching her lay waste to the entire Greek navy with only a few arrows or her tendency to make out with a freshly severed head, there isn't one moment that passes where you won't be thinking how gloriously evil she is and how much you love her for it. It must be said once again though, none of this would be possible without Green in the role, as she gracefully bounces back and forth from this hardened warrior, to a passionate and poisonous siren and into this evil witch who controls all those around her with her serpentine tongue, not once will you ever be able to imagine anyone else in this same role having even one tenth the impact she does.

The question that must be asked now is whether or not a single performance can save a film from mediocrity? The answer to that question lies in whether or not that performance was able to make you forgive the film for its many missteps and its reliance on old tricks. Aside from many of the battles taking place at sea, the progression of the film is nearly identical to the original and watching the same battle from a different perspective only gets you so far. The real question you must ask yourself before deciding to see ROAE is how fond you are of the original film?

That isn't meant to be a question of whether or not you love it, but more about if you were a fan of what worked in it. The visual style, the action and the stark lack of any sort of character development is the exact same, but now with even less originality. If that sounds like you, then the added benefit of having one of Hollywood's best hidden treasures turning in a riveting and awe inspiring performance should make this a no brainer for you. ROAE isn't better than the first 300, it's just about on par with it with its only real flaw being that it isn't able to find its own voice and become something other than a simple sequel.


The only reason to see this film in theaters is Eva Green. While the action is fine and the visual style still impresses on a purely aesthetic level, at the end of the day the only thing that anyone will take away from the experience is Green's impressively evil turn as Artemisia and where can they get more of her. 300: Rise of an Empire should have been renamed to 300: Rise of a Star, because there is no way Eva Green continues to linger in obscurity after this.

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