It's not often that I get a request for a particular review. But a helpful gentleman of my acquaintance wanted my opinion of Noam Murro's "300: Rise of an Empire" and I felt "why not?"
You'll note, first off, that I said Noam Murro's "300: Rise of an Empire" and not Zack Snyder. In spite of the fact that Snyder's name has been pasted every which way possible in regards to the film, it's Murro who holds the director's credit. Or at least I'm going to presume such is the case. Up until now Murro has only directed a few HBO specials, plus a 2008 film entitled "Smart People". Does any of this entitle him to direct the sequel to "300"? I could go and direct a few detergent commercials. Would this qualify me to adapt Larry Niven's "Ringworld" for the big screen? Somehow I don't think so. I mean, true Murro was originally tapped to direct "The Ring Two" and "A Good Day to Die Hard", but I came away from seeing "Rise of an Empire" wondering if Snyder pulled a Howard Hawks. More on Murro later.
"300: Rise of an Empire" also raises the question of whether or not a sequel was necessary. True, the material was taken from an as-yet unreleased graphic novel by Frank Miller (who brought us the original "300"), so one could claim that a legitimacy was present. But was it necessary? Sequels have on occasion been known to work. But for every "Godfather Part 2", "Bride of Frankenstein" and "The Empire Strikes Back" there's been a crop of films such as "War of the Colossal Beast", "Demetrius and the Gladiators", "Beware! The Blob", "Iron Eagle II" and Lord knows so many other wastes of celluloid.
(Okay, I will admit to liking "War of the Colossal Beast". But I'm trying to establish perspective here, pumpkins.)
The point I want to raise here is that Snyder's "300" was a roundly watchable work in its own right. Did we (the audience) actually need to know what happened afterwards? Did this lily really need to be gilded?
Well . . . maybe. Whereas I'd never consider "Rise of an Empire" to be immortally classic cinema, neither will I dismiss it out of hand. Overall I give it 5 out of 10. It could've been far worse, but by the same token it could've been much better.
The story once again delves into that supposedly exciting time around 480 BC where, if we're to believe the films, people spent an awful lot of time standing around posing in practically next to nothing, making sonorous pronouncements to one another and then going off to hack up their neighbors in slow motion. This is how the world was before cable television was invented. Nowadays the only real difference is that we wear more clothing.
Okay . . .
The story is a depiction of the battle of Salamis, where the second Persian invasion of Greece was blocked by a combined effort of several Greek states. The events in the film dovetail with those of "300" so, rather than a sequel, the two stories should technically be considered as running side by side. Several characters from "300" reprise their roles in "Rise", and more on that further on.
It's getting a bit painful chewing on my tongue here, pumpkins. We're currently living in a period where accuracy in historical dramas is sort of blurring in favor of flashiness and (for want of a better term) sex appeal. In series such as "The Tudors", "Rome" and "The Borgias" there seems to be an underlying belief that history can afford to slide if it's replaced by some ripped bods on the screen.
That "Rise" actually has a nodding relationship with some form of accuracy is something I want to lay at the feet of Frank Miller (perhaps with Snyder as an accomplice). I'm of course familiar with John Ford's pronouncement of printing the legend when it becomes fact. And certainly it won't be easy to go back 2500 years into the past to find out how things really were. Not only that, but I'm willing to bet Homer distorted the facts on occasion.
I'll leave it by saying that if you appreciated the approach Snyder and Miller took in "300", then you'll have little problem with "Rise". As before, war is depicted as a stylized ballet of spilled blood and slashing weapons. To give Murro and the film crew their due, the act of death is never prettied up or sanitized. Very few people in "Rise" simply roll over and die. More often than not they end up as cold cuts (and, on occasion, barbecued as well).
It was in the middle of watching one of the numerous hackfests in this film that I was struck by an epiphany. If "Rise" had thrown in Martians and eight-legged beasts then this could've been the movie Andrew Stanton's "John Carter" should've been. The style of "Rise" (and, by extension, "300") is exactly the way the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars stories should be filmed. All the violence and spectacle of Burrough's Barsoom right there in front of us.
(Warner Bros. executives take note. And I'm throwing this out as a freebie.)
The above wasn't the only epiphany I experienced. It also occurred to me that Murro (or maybe Snyder, depending on how your suspicions fall) was doing a fairly good job of channeling the ghost of Eisenstein. As with "Alexander Nevsky", "Ivan the Terrible" and others, Murro's direction isn't so much focused on story as it is in stringing together a series of montages. We're moved from one battle to the next with only a few minutes set aside for connecting dialogue. And the dialogue is, at its most basic, devoid of anything beyond making impressive-sounding statements. In "Alexander Nevsky", Nikolai Cherkasov does little more than stand around delivering lines such as "bring me my princely garb". Seventy six years later we have Sullivan Stapleton pronouncing "Better to show them, we chose to die on our feet, rather than live on our knees".
(Did they have any comedians in ancient Greece? Were there any standup clubs in Athens? Apparently not. What the heck did the Greeks do for laughs back in those days?)
Stapleton plays Themistocles: the Athenian warlord (sort of a low-fat version of the character Gerard Butler played in "300"). If the name Themistocles sort of tickles your memory then give yourself points. Early on in Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia", Peter O'Toole quotes Themistocles (so there's your trivia point for the next party you attend). Granted that Stapleton's lines were scraped off of Athenian recruiting posters from over two millennia ago I actually found myself fairly taken by his on-screen presence. Occasionally he tends to resemble Anthony Hopkins from the time of "The Lion in Winter", and now I want to go back and find some of his earlier performances and see how he handles actual human dialogue.
And we learn something new every day. I was unaware that Artemisia (Xerxes' female general) was actually a real person. But hey presto! she was . . . although I privately tend to suspect that she may not have been as much a curvaceous and murderous badass as she was portrayed in the film. Here she's played by Eva Green, and thank the Lord I caught her act in Tim Burton's otherwise forgettable "Dark Shadows". After seeing Green in both "Casino Royale" and "Rise" I'm wishing that she'd go out and do several giggly comedic roles. Lighten up, Eva! Granted she impressively smolders with the best of them . . . and the special effects team manages to make her look like a one-woman Apocalypse . . . but, right now, I'd pay good money to see her in a sitcom.
Speaking of Xerxes, here he's once again played by Rodrigo Santoro. And here I've got to call MISTAKE! In "300", Santoro played Xerxes as a larger-than-life divine force, rather than a human opponent. His performance in that film definitely helped make it as entertaining as it was. In "Rise", however, we not only see the creation of Xerxes, we see him reduced to more human dimensions (of course even Hannibal Lecter would appear like Joe Shmoe standing next to Green's Artemisia). One of the biggest mistakes any creative person can make is to take a near omnipresent and implacable opponent and somehow reduce him to human terms. The same thing happened to the Borg in "Star Trek": reduced from fascinating and unstoppable villains to just normal creatures that could be reasoned with. Santoro does his best, but it all falls though, providing "Rise" with one of the biggest stabs in the gut.
Meanwhile Lena Hadley also reprises her role as the Spartan Queen Gorgo, and here she's given a lot more to do than in the previous film, succeeding where Santoro suffered. Here she's allowed to debate several situations with Stapleton, bringing the overall dialogue the closest to actually appearing like normal conversation.
As I said, if you liked "300" then "Rise" could be a somewhat worthwhile way to throw a few hours of your life aside. Personally I would've preferred more in the way of interaction between characters (or at least interaction that didn't involve pointed objects). Something that would've made us feel more towards the characters. As it was I've received more depth from a game of "Civilization IV" than I have from "Rise". And yes, it's true that a good deal of history did involve little more than reducing various people into cutlets. But as Franklin Schaffner demonstrated in "Patton", war is also a matter of personality and character. Oftentimes it's what remains after the blood has spilled.