“You fight better than you fuck,” Eva Green snarks to chiseled, aggregate-male avatar Themistocles during the climatic battle in 300: Rise of an Empire. Bless her, but in this flick it’s kind of all the same. Yea, the slo-mo abs and wolf holl’ars have returned, with bonus Lena Headey out to send some Lannister-ian regards. After securing The Hot Gates, God-king Xerxes is poised to raze the whole of Greece, ending Democracy and Freedom forever. But it’s his shadow power behind the throne and naval commander Artemisia who has a real bone to pick with Western civilization’s favorite pederasts. Only one man, a clever Athenian naval commander, stands in the way of her vengeance. Well, like, him, a couple of his war buddies, a father/son one-of-you-is-so-boned unit, and a bunch of CGI extras.
Like its predecessor, any enjoyment of 300 II is in how big and loud and dumb it is. And that might be fine. 300 was not what you’d call successful by any critical margin. Yet its caps lock sensibility – “Only the hard and the strong may call themselves Spartans. ONLY THE HARD. ONLY THE STRONG.” – and operatic visual excess endeared it to audiences. I grieve to report the heir is much less worthy than the sire, save in one crucial respect: Eva Green’s Artemisia gives Tom Hiddleston’s Loki a run for most fantastic villain of the ’10s.
Much of 300: Rise of an Empire has to be endured in order to bask in the fabulousness that is Eva Green. Artemisia has a depressingly rote traumatic past which makes her all voluptuous and violent and eager to challenge the patriarchy. But Green doesn’t so much play the character as written in the script as create this scenery-chewing leviathan who smiles like she knows exactly how and when you’re going to die. She strides into a room like she’s got three extra arms that are all battleaxes; her voice drips absinthe; her looks are a mix of kohl and starlight.
Maybe the most fantastic moment in the film is when she stands just off-stage of Xerxes, newly bald and God-king’d, and whispers his speech just before he bellows it out. It’s sexy as hell, and, depending on how much you miss bombastic villains in the age of gritty reboots, worth the price of admission. If there could be a whole movie of Eva Green playing Russian roulette with her lieutenants, sending them to their deaths as she drinks an espresso and strokes her pet Siberian tiger, I would watch it.
Now, a hugely fun villain and ripped Australian stuntmen should be all need for your campy epic. But the main problem with Rise of an Empire is how visually uninspired it is. The direction is awful, less as if Noam Murro was recreating the panels of Frank Miller’s comic and more as though he was cribbing some boss battles from Skyrim. We linger on lots of male forms leaping and slashing and, you know, penetrating. But there’s not enough creative, Rube Goldburgian domino-deaths, or sense of fantasy, or the unit cohesion that made the absurdity of 300 a guilty delight. It simply doesn’t have the inventive gags or embellishments to feel fresh. In the film’s trailer, you see a horse charge down the decks of ships and basically bounce off the water up onto another one. That’s the sort of balls-out madness that doesn’t happen nearly often enough.
More than that, the film would be so much better if it just realized that Artemisia is the main character. Meanwhile, I’m still not entirely convinced Themistocles wasn’t created by WETA. The film checks its momentum for multiple frame stories in order to introduce our new protagonist. He’s not nearly as bearded, shouty, or Scottish as Gerard Butler’s Leonidas. Sullivan Stapleton has none of the hints of slyness or knowing swagger of the Spartan king. Nor does Themistocles’ dream of a united Greece make any sense, except as the plot requires him to harbor it.
Had this been a story of vengeance from the get-go, told chronologically, with the warring Greek city-states being responsible for Artemisia’s enslavement, so that she then fashions herself into a vessel of revenge, that’s logical. Instead of jumping back and forth through history, you go from her bringing the heads of kings to Darius, he says something fatherly, then she’s like, “All I want is to burn Athens to ashes because they killed my family and also that rhymes.” And he’s like, “No, I have to take my wuss son Xerxes to Marathon so he can be a good warrior.” And then when Darius dies there, she basically seduces and brainwashes a feckless Persian prince and through him sends a million men off to sate her bloodlust. And suddenly the idea of a united, peaceful, and democratic Greece seems more desirable. What’s worse than a bad script is when it’s fixable.
And the reason why is because of the most distasteful aspect of the film: its jingoism. It’s hard to not notice all the square-jawed, crew cut Anglos in blue cloaks are fighting a variegated army of colored people, wearing anachronistic turbans, who supposedly are so warlike because they hate our freedom. This was in the first film, but it’s only gotten worse. Rise of an Empire is an orgiastic expression of fearful and biting xenophobia, and that’s just really disappointing. Even Artemisia is so clever ‘cos she’s also a (white) Greek, but all twisted so not a safe, submissive, housebound one. Don’t say ‘hoplites killed her family’ like hoplites are some roving, random band of bandits, Themistocles. Hoplite just means a Greek citizen-soldier. We’ve all played Civilization. We know.
There’s so much pointlessness I barely have time for it. What’s up with that power-play choke sex Themistocles and Artemisia have, and why can’t I decide if it was successful or not? Why is Gorgo so booo democracy, all of a sudden? If I remember, she and Leonidas were all for it a united Greece full of free men who would rather die standing than live on their knees? Why do we see Sparta’s navy in the beginning and then the script tries to make it, like, suspenseful whether or not it’ll sail to the rescue? Why does Sparta even have a navy? UGH, they were a laaaand power. #classicminor, #whereismyAlcibiadesbiopicsettothemusicofJimmyHendrix?
300: Rise of an Empire, in sum, is far too much a retread of the brave 300, not enough about any empire, nor visually absurd enough to rise above the wooden walls of its atrocious script. The greatest technical feat here is how Eva Green is able to turn words into BETTER WORDS. She raises the bar for future villainy, on the high seas or off.
Take a Drink: whenever someone has to narrate exposition about a character who wasn’t in the first film.
Take a Drink: every time a ship sinks, a Persian officer dies, and/or Eva Green says something sassy.
Take a Drink: if you’re an imperialist dog: whenever a Greek character says Freedom, Free Men, Democracy, or Tyranny. If you’re a terrorist: whenever a Persian character says Bow, Burn, Die, or Kill.
Do a Shot: whenever Eva Green has two swords!
Finish Your Drink: when HAROO, HAROO, HAROO!