Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Cinema File #326: "300: Rise Of An Empire" Review

Zach Snyder movies tend to bounce around the bell curve of quality more than most directors. For every criminal abomination like Man of Steel, we get a criminally underrated Watchmen, and for every style over substance misfire like Sucker Punch, we get a stylish masterpiece like 300. Almost a decade after that film scored surprising success and practically created a new genre of epic action movies, 300: Rise of an Empire is a valiant attempt to re-capture some of that bloody, ballsy, vaguely homoerotic spirit for a new audience well used to the tropes after so many imitators. Unfortunately, without Snyder at the helm, the kind of risky exuberance that makes him so hit and miss is replaced by a dull, safe, and thoroughly disappointing effort that never takes any chances, and as a result never had a chance to be good.

The new 300 is all over the place, in pretty much every sense of that term. For one thing, the chronology of just where we are in time in relation to the first film is a bit jarring and overly complicated. It's not a straight sequel, but rather a prequel, midquel, and sequel all rolled into one. We get three flashbacks before we even get to the main story, which hits at about the half hour mark as the two armies face each other down, as if all that set up was just gotten out of the way so that the rest of the movie could consist of one giant battle, which is pretty much the case, for better and for worse. Good luck figuring out who you're supposed to root for though, as the film is clearly structured with an obvious good guy and bad guy in mind, but then does everything it can to muddy the waters, not in a way that's cleverly ambiguous mind you, just haphazard and poorly thought out.

The problem is not, as it would be in a good movie, a matter of moral complexity. It is not that the good guys have flaws and the bad guys have saving graces, even though this is technically true for both sides. The problem is that the good guys are just too goddamn boring to care about, and conversely, the villain is too interesting and charming to condemn. I defy you not to take the side of Eva Green's invasion force after hearing the story of just why her character hates the Greeks so much, and if you can bring yourself to even stay awake through any of the scenes where the hero has to do anything but stab people, you deserve a medal, or at least your ticket money back. Everyone else remotely interesting, including returning characters played by Lena Headey and Rodrigo Santoro, are relegated to pointless extended cameos just to remind us they were still alive from the last one.

The action is where the heart of this series lies, and to be fair it is more than passable, relatively similar to the first one save for the exclusively maritime battlefield. If all you care about is seeing a bunch of people gored to death with comically large bursts of CGI blood exploding out of them, then this is the movie for you, and I honestly don't say that as a judgement, as often this is enough for me depending on my mood. That being said, there's something just a bit tired about watching the same thing now after eight years and a million rip offs. When the original film came out, you could argue it felt like a glorified video game, but really, it was like we wished video games would be, and now video games are if anything better than this, and wouldn't you rather play these guys, or some other ancient equivalent, rather than just watch them? The absence of a great story didn't feel quite so painful when the style was still a novelty, but now this just feels like a highlight reel in search of a movie.

Apparently, 300: Rise of an Empire is actually based on an as-yet unreleased graphic novel by the original author Frank Miller, called Xerxes. The fact that this is the case despite the character Xerxes barely being in the movie at all might be the perfect metaphor for just what a failure it is. To say that a 300 movie drained all of the potential substance and just left the flashy ephemera seems like a silly complaint considering just what kind of movie we're talking about, but there's still something to be said for the basic rules of storytelling and character. This one stretches your ability to stay interested in a story bereft of characterization or plot development to its absolute limit, hoping you'll stay for the carnage and have so much fake blood in your eyes by the end that you won't notice how little has actually happened. As hard charging, gratuitous battle porn, it more than delivers, but if you want anything else even remotely resembling a movie, don't bother.
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