What we forget about the Ancient Greeks is that they were a bickering collection of dysfunctional city states, who had nothing but contempt for any culture other than their own, and worshiped a gang of psychopathic deities whose king was a serial rapist. Who was the greatest of Greek heroes? Heracles, a dim-witted muscleman who murdered his entire family in a fit of madness. Yeah, Hellas birthed Socrates, but it also had him tried for treason and forced him to commit suicide. The Athenians kept slaves, their democracy was a sad oligarchic joke, the Spartans were fascist warmongers, and the entire miserable collection of backwards pederasts was too ridiculously divided to ever form a proper nation until they were all conquered by the Macedonians. In contrast, the Achaemenid Persian Empire was a model for centralized government, abolished slavery, and brought peace and prosperity for much of the world. If I were to go back in time to the 400s BC, I would definitely prefer to live under the wise leadership of a Persian Padishah than bickering Athenian old men.
Yet knowing all that, we still have movies like "300: Rise of an Empire", a completely shameless exercised in millennia-old jingoism. As a sequel to the equally stupid 2006 Zack Snyder film, "300", "300: Rise of an Empire" continues that film's tradition of turning history into a militarist cartoon. The Greeks here are golden supermen spinning around spears for freedom, fully equipped with perky nipples, rippling abs, and unsullied by body hair or shame. The Persians are dark Eastern villains accompanied anachronistically by music that sounds suspiciously a lot like the Muslim Adhan, the call to prayer. We, the glorious defenders of democracy, must crush those horrible dark Iranians, what with their nuclear program and frightening heathen religion. When it Obama going to stop being a liberal pussy, throw off his suit, and join Brave King Leonidas in a big gay naked phalanx to save the world from the Ayatollah?
I guess I am reading far too much subtext into "300: Rise of an Empire", a movie so stupid that it would probably need a dictionary to learn the definition of the word "subtext". And it would also need a helper to explain to it what a dictionary even was. Despite every learned neuron in my brain screaming at me to tear this movie to pieces thanks to its clueless disrespect to world culture, I am somehow charmed by "300: Rise of an Empire". Yeah, this might be a movie fully without merit, and it might be a huge festival of man-flesh and homoeroticism on a scale never before attempted, but it is so mindless and stupid as to be weirdly enthralling. And more importantly, it stars Eva Greene, the shining salvation to this sausage fest.
The original "300" was a movie I cannot say I much enjoyed, but one that was at least original and burned its own place on the landscaping of filmmaking. It was a fairly pointless celebration of macho pigheaded bravado, essentially nothing more than a few hours of Gerard Butler's King Leonidas screaming lines so cheesy as to create a new Youtube meme with every scene. "Irony" is another word not in "300"'s vocabulary. The unique blue and orange visual esthetic, combined with Frank Miller's insane fantasy view of the ancient world complete with ogres and an eight-foot sexually-ambiguous Godking all created an unforgettable movie experience. Zack Snyder also developed an innovative new way to film action scenes, with a striking slow-down speed-up method that was - at the time at least - blood pumping and exciting. Today, of course, we've suffered eight years of bad "300" wanna-bes - a plague of movies using that same slow-down effect to a mortifying death. Blue and orange color correction hopefully in 2014 is deader than the brave 300 Spartans who fought and lost their war thousands of years ago. But like it or not, "300" was an important film.
That a sequel is being made eight years after the fact seems to be a pretty big mistake in my opinion, having appeared almost a decade after the original "300" was relevant. The new film comes with an incomprehensible subtitle*, and a new storyline that compliments and continues the Battle of Thermopylae depicted in "300 1". The focus this time is on the naval war, featuring the indecisive Battle of Artemisium which occurred concurrently as Thermopylae, and later the Battle of Salamis, where the Greeks decisively defeated the Persian Navy. Our hero this time is the Athenian admiral Themistocles, thoroughly underplayed by the thoroughly forgettable Sullivan Stapleton, a Greek patriot, champion of democracy, and dreamer of a united Greece to defeat the Persians. Also apparently in the Battle of Marathon, the first Persian attempt to conquer Greece, Themistocles killed the vile King Xerxes's father, Darius the Great**. So he's quite a guy, not that you would remember him for very long compared to his competition.
The Greeks might have invented Western democracy,
but they did not quite grasp the concept of the shirt yet.
Themistocles is really little more than a broken record, spouting vague concepts of democracy and freedom, utterly unworthy of our attention. The real star is his main rival: Queen Artemisia, unforgettably played by Eva Green.
Eva Green might not be the kind of actress who collects Academy Awards as a hobby, but she is still one of my favorite female actors alive today. She is stunningly beautiful, a strong presence in every film she takes part in, and comes equipped with a haughty half-smile at all times. Few actresses look like they could conquer the planet just with an arrogant expression, but Eva Green pulls it off. When "300 2" needed a half-crazed dominant hammy performance from its lead villain, Eva Green stepped up and thoroughly saved this movie. Artemisia's backstory (completely invented) is one of the most sympathetic of any character yet, and (just as equally invented) it is revealed she has been the manipulating force behind the Persian war effort, having brainwashed Xerxes into believing he is a God (or maybe he really is one, the movie is confused on this subject). She's part half-insane assassin, part wicked witch, part femme fatale, and altogether the best part of this movie by miles. As a commander in this movie, she probably is not very competent, chilling back confidently as she sends wave after wave of Persian warship to their demise, but as a bringer of entertainment, you will never take your eyes off of Artemisia. She puts on a silly outfit, stomps her heels deep into cracking Greek balls, and runs away with this movie, leaving bloody footprints of Greek manhood in her wake.
Themistocles and Artemisia are given a long-running rivalry for "300: Rise of an Empire", which is ultimately the main point of this movie. Artemisia is impressed by her rival commander's skill and in probably the most gonzo scene yet from this saga, confronts him personally by inviting him onto her pleasure barge. Thus begins the usual threat of "join me and we will rule the galaxy, father and son", combined with an equally-usual femme fatale flirting. Which then takes a turn for total hilarity as Artemisia suddenly mounts Themistocles, which is followed by what I believe is the very first scene of sex-fighting in cinematic history. Also the line: "you fight harder than you fuck".
Forget democracy or gyros, I want Eva Green to win.
Unfortunately, Themistocles chooses his celibate life of serving Greece before all else and rejoins his oily legions of half-naked masculinity. I am sorry, "300: Rise of an Empire", but once you have had a male character say no to Eva Green's completely exposed heavenly orbs, that character is now officially 100% Gay with a capital "G". Not that there is anything wrong with that. In a "300" movie, which are supposed to be all about big burly men sticking hard pointy objects into each other, this is what the movie is really about. Men being men, hanging out on a beach, sharpening their swords for hours on end. Men staring into each other's eyes, sharing a bond of brotherhood and understanding that no mere woman could ever understand. Men icing up their nipples and shaving off that gross body hair between takes. We know what you are "300", and we accept you. Why, we even love you for it. You're nothing but a big ball of bleeding testosterone, so stupid as to be beyond all criticism.
Interestingly, though many characters from the original "300" return, such as Xerxes (now with a confusing contradictory backstory), the hunchback, David Wenham's one-eyed narrator, and Lena Hedley's Queen Gorgo, the main star of "300", Gerard Butler, the supercharged center of this homosexual vortex, refused to even give a cameo. He appears only once in a recycled scene, already dead as Xerxes removes his head as a trophy. The main Spartan leader this time is Lena Hedley, who is looking amazingly pale and old in this movie thanks to a complete lack of make-up. But women are gross, what we need is more of this:
The battle scenes are generally what you would expect from a sequel to "300". Huge muscly fascist sculptures jumping around ship to ship, cutting out faceless hordes of vile Middle Eastern invaders. The world is a barren land of dim colors, either lifeless gray deserts or equally lifeless bronze ones. Clouds of black blood gush out of every blow, squirting outward according to some esoteric laws of physics that exist only in the minds of Zack Snyder and Frank Miller. Limbs fly off, swords clash, ships are torn to pieces by ramming Greek triremes. Most of the fantasy monsters from the original "300" are sorely missing unfortunately, but the sun-tanned physique of Greek's finest warriors keep the film moving. Everything is absolute nonsense, made all the more wonderful when Themistocles in the climax, jumps out of his warship riding a white horse across the waves. Yes, part of me says that they got the Battle of Salamis completely wrong***, but the other part of me is just glad to be part of the ride.
The best part of "300: Rise of an Empire" for me at least is that it features one thing badly missing from movies this century: camp. This is a movie where apparently the Persian navy invented the ironclad battleship over 2000 years before the Battle of Hampton Roads during the American Civil War. Queen Artemisia wears armor with spiked scales on her back, and then murders three dozen Greeks with golden swords. There is no realism to be found, and very little in the way of logic, but its all such a huge celebration of excess and madness I was half-expecting the Greek navy to break out into song and dance numbers. At least we could have had one high-kicking chorus line of Spartans, right?
Perhaps it was merely Eva Green adding light onto the movie, but I may have enjoyed "300 2" more than "300 1". This is not a good movie by any logical definition, but luckily I don't work through logic. Logic is an illusion. "300: Rise of an Empire" might be absolutely stupid quasi-racist crypto-fascist bullshit through and through, but at least its fun absolutely stupid quasi-racist crypto-fascist bullshit.
Speaking of bullshit, allow me to return to my thesis topic about Greece vs. Persia. Oh yes, this movie might claim the Greeks were champions of civilization and glorious victors who trampled would-be tyrants. The reality though for victorious Themistocles was not quite so black and white. The greatest of Greek patriots was double-crossed a few years after winning Salamis by jealous Athenian politicians. He lost everything and was exiled in disgrace, for doing nothing more than being too successful. Luckily for Themistocles there was one land willing to accept anybody, even former enemies: Persia. Themistocles lived out the rest of his life serving Xerxes' son, Emperor Artaxerxes, who generously made him the governor of three Greek towns within the Persian Empire. But who needs hospitality, honesty, honor, or peace when one can have freedom, right?
* I have been wondering about this "Rise of an Empire" business for months, and having seen the film, I still have no idea what in the name of Gerard Butler's Scottish accent it is supposed to refer to.
** This was definitely a huge surprise to me, considering that Darius the Great did not lead the Persian forces at the Battle of Marathon, and never visited Greece in his entire life. Could it be that Themistocles' bow aim was so incredible that he was able to shoot an arrow thousands of miles to slay the Padishah? No, "300: Rise of an Empire" just made that detail up, Darius I died quietly of old age.
*** For example, Queen Artemisia was not the leader of the Persian forces, only one part of the Persian navy who wound up shocking Xerxes by fighting rather well in the engagement, and more importantly, did not actually die at Salamis. But then again, neither did Darius die at Marathon, history and logic in this series were abandoned the moment Gerard Butler kicked that Persian messenger down a well eight years ago.