Saturday, 3 May 2014

"Let it be shown that we chose to die on our feet, rather than live on our knees!"

In a portentous opening voice over, Lena Headey's (Game Of Thrones) Gorgo warns of death, war and "a tidal wave of blood" – a rare moment of understatement, as it turns out. What Headey fails to notice is the tsunami of camp poised to thunder through this hack and slash spectacular of clanging steel, arterial splatter and rippling six-packs.

Clearly taking a cue from the ramped up action, glorious sweeping vistas, oily six-packs and beautiful woman approach in Zack Snyder's 300 (2006), the focus this time around, however, is more on epic aquatic battles, than bloody dusty sand scraps.

Based on Frank Miller's still in the works graphic novel Xerxes, 300: Rise Of An Empire is the putative second chapter in an ongoing saga with more than one field of adjacent activity. Turns out that the Battle Of Thermopylae was not the only skirmish in Greece around 480 BC. Set before, during and after Sparta's last stand, this is the same war on another front – a maritime duel between Sullivan Stapleton's (Gangster Squad) heroic Themistokles and Eva Green's (Casino Royale) psychotic Artemisia who, in a scene of breathtaking gratuitousness, seduces her rival with some predictable pre-battle revenge sex.

From the off, 300: Rise Of An Empire strives to make a virtue of its secondary status by making its entire story seemingly one of inadequacy and belittlement. Greek general Themistocles is presented as Leonidas' inferior, a blue cloaked upstart next to his red mantled overlord. "You've come a long way to stroke your cock while real men train!" sneers Headey's Queen Gorgo when he visits Sparta in the hope of brokering a pan-Grecian alliance against the invading Persian forces.

Sparta, we're told, is the "birthplace of the world's greatest warriors", as opposed to Athens, the home of democracy and senators bickering over the correct course of action.

From the first naval campaign, it becomes clear that Snyder's 300 is, in comparison, a model of restraint. The increase in scale results in a shift in genre. This is a superhero movie in a different cloak. Noam Murro, previously a commercials director, sets the action at ramming speed with great visual flare and confidence, if lacking a little in personality. He is, for the sake of franchise continuity, a proxy Snyder, demonstrating the hyper-realistic sensibility we've come to expect. Battle scenes full of billowing slow motion and gloriously gory overkill, this is an exaggeration of 300, in body count, style, size and violence.

Yet despite 300: Rise Of An Empire's overtly testosterone toned aesthetic, this is clearly Eva Green's film. Elevating the art of scenery chewing to devouring entire cities, Green's dominatrix Cleopatra is a deliciously unchained creation. Artemisia is the full package: mad, sociopathic, motivated and flamboyant.

Even with Green's involvement though, it is hard not to feel like we've been saddled with the B-team, for all Headey's reams of voice over and a back story flashback explaining the genesis of Rodrigo Santoro's god-king Xerxes. Admittedly there are cameos from David Wenham's (Australia) one-eyed warrior Dilios and Andrew Tiernan's (The Pianist) two-faced hunchback Ephialtes. But there's no avoiding the Gerard Butler (Olympus Has Fallen) shaped hole where a leading man should be.

As with its predecessor, Miller's words, so effective on page, are once again clunkily adapted into rousing monologues – cut Themistokles and he would simply bleed hot air. But visually, there's a genuine 3D experience on offer here, one that's both immersive and interactive. The 3D is, admittedly, its sole ambition in terms of depth, but treat it as a large scale B movie and you'll find a campy gore-opera bursting with guilty pleasures.

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