The major problem with “300: Rise of an Empire” is that its ideal audience can’t see it. If I had been 12 when I saw it, I might have thought it the coolest movie ever – and along with it a palatable way to get a smattering of ancient history mixed with a truckload of gory and testosterone-drenched graphic novel fantasy.
But the movie is rated R for the best possible reasons. Consider it a pretty hard “R” at that for its constant blood spillage, dismemberment, disembowelment and beheading – not to mention one scene of very rough sex in which Athenian naval hero Themistocles learns from savage naval commander Artemisia that a critique of a man’s sexual performance is often the first refuge of a woman spurned.
Well, so it is in macho fantasies anyway. Any resemblance to the stories of these people and events in Herodotus, Thucydides and Plutarch (just to name a few) is decidedly minimal.
When last we left the “300” in the original film, Leonidas and his 300 Spartan warriors famously battled the outnumbering Persians and perished forever in the “Hot Gates” of Thermopylae, only to be remembered in Western civilization as the epitome of soldierly valor. In Zack Snyder’s movie from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, they left behind them the memory of six-pack abs chiseled in stone and Gerard Butler’s outsized machismo as Leonidas. (Butler tried to take it with him to romantic comedies, only to discover that a lot of people thought he was funnier when he wasn’t trying to be.)
This time, the tale is of the Athenians’ and their great leader Themistocles who fight both smartly and savagely, unlike the ab-flexing Spartans. They’ve still got serious abdominal muscles, you understand – unlike movie critics and popcorn-pounding movie audiences – but at Themistocles’ insistence, they like to strategize a little.
Like so: OK, your boats are much smaller and fewer than those of the Empire-building Persians. If you can sucker them into straits crowded with rocks, you can sink most of the ships and screw up their numerical advantages royally. Of such deviousness is the history of our species joyfully packed.
Did I mention that all of this is going on just a few decades before Plato was born? Don’t worry about it. The movie doesn’t mention it either.
Snyder left the direction of his script in this sequel to Israeli Noam Murro, who does his best with the brutal, half-animated unreality of graphic novels, after previously giving the world a comedy it didn’t want called “Smart People.” (It was about intellectuals with very stupid love lives. What else is new?)
Plutarch’s version of Themistocles seems to be almost psychopathically addicted to fame, heroism, influence and the good opinion of others from the time he was a child. Thucydides kisses him goodbye by telling us he “was a man who showed an unmistakable natural genius ... in this respect he was quite exceptional and beyond all others deserves our admiration ... through force of genius and by rapidity of action, this man was supreme at doing precisely the right thing at the right moment.”
All of which is lovely except that after all the freedom-seeking gore shown here – with accompanying savagery – Themistocles ended his life years later throwing himself on the mercy of the once-dreaded Persians. “The right thing at the right moment” indeed.
Where this does get to be absurd, if awfully bloody fun, is in Miller’s huge expansion of the tale of Persian naval commander Artemisia, whom Herodotus praises for her “manly courage in battle,” her leadership of the “second most famous squadron in the entire Navy” and her splendid advice on military matters to Persian King Xerxes, which he admired greatly and ignored totally.
By the time this movie gets through with her, she’s a sexually assaulted foundling who is solely responsible for turning Xerxes from a well-born clumsy royal to a 10-foot god/king and a bloodthirsty battler. She’s also a bloodthirsty fighter herself who proves her mettle by returning from battle holding six of the enemy’s severed heads, three in each hand. She’s the one whose idea of sex is, rather predictably, not terribly friendly.
Artemisia really needed a movie to herself. She’s played by Eva Green, whose ferocity does indeed exceed Sullivan Stapleton’s as Themistocles. Lena Headey as Spartan Queen Gorgo seems to have had as little orthodontia on her lower teeth as Stapleton which, I must say, keeps it real.
Well, sort of.
The movie isn’t entirely humorless, but it sure is awfully lacking in the stuff for my taste. If Hollywood has told us anything entertaining over the decades, it’s how men at war try their best to offset the horror of killing and dying with jokes and wisecracks. (One of my favorite lines comes from the Robert Wagner movie “In Love and War”: Communications officer Mort Sahl answers his field telephone amid whistling bullets and exploding ordnance. “Good morning,” he says cheerily into the phone, “World War II.”)
It seems to me after you see the first 10 quarts of blood spilled, you’ve seen them all. There is, however, one sea battle so well imagined I threw in an extra half star.
Too bad the 12-year-olds will have to wait until they’re officially of age for all this solemn, bloodthirsty and semi-historic adolescent fantasy.
300: Rise of an Empire
2½ stars (Out of four)
Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green. Lena Headey
Director: Noam Murro
Running time: 97 minutes
Rating: R for very rough sex, nudity and constant blood, gore and dismemberment.
The Lowdown: The Persians return to take a second whack at the ancient Greeks, but Themistocles’ Athenians are smart enough to get the Spartans on their side.