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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Sullivan Stapleton stars in "300: Rise of an Empire," now playing.

"300: Rise of an Empire": Madness? This! Is! Mediocre!


When "300" came out back in 2006, it felt like something completely new. Sure, the graphic novel adaptation was kiddie pool-level deep and had an all-caps infatuation with combat that bordered on the uncomfortably wargasmic.

But it had an infectious brash attitude that made it feel as big, anthemic and mythical as its Greek origins. And oh my, was it pretty. The only thing "300" dripped more than a homoerotic slurry of stylized blood, sweat and body oil was picturesque cool.

Of course, after it made a shocking amount of money for an R-rated release, much less one in March, a sequel was rumored and eventually announced. Considering 299 of our title characters wind up dead by the end, even die-hard fans had to ask: "What's the point?"

Well, now "300: Rise of an Empire" is here to answer that question with a resounding, "I dunno." Some movies leave you, as the kids say, feeling all of the feels. "Rise of an Empire" – arriving probably five years unfashionably late to the party, wearing a cheap knock-off of trends that became passé three seasons ago – leaves the audience feeling none of them.

As it turns out, before Leonidas was punting his messengers into endless pits, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) was the Persian king's bushy haired son. One well-placed arrow from Greek hero Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) during a rainy Battle of Marathon, however, puts a rattled Xerxes on the throne. There, with the help of a spiritual jaunt through the desert and some vigorous push from his revenge-minded naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green), he transforms into the immense, war-hungry god-king ancestor of Mr. Clean.

While the 300 Spartans attempt to hold the Persian advance on land, Themistokles and an equally overmatched crew of Greeks take the battle out to sea, hoping the country will unite in time to help. Wooden boats smash into one another like a soggy destruction derby. Persians are sliced open like balloons overfilled with jam. Heroes yell bro-spirational war cries. Rinse. Repeat.

"300" director Zack Snyder (serving merely as co-screenwriter and producer here) may struggle when it comes to storytelling and managing his bombast, but when it comes to visuals, few directors have such a captivating, carefully cool eye. So with only one other film credit to his name (the instantly forgotten Ellen Page quirky family dramedy "Smart People"), Noam Murro wasn't the most obvious pick for recreating his predecessor's mesmerizing comic visuals.

The Israeli-born director is up to the task, creating some striking shots, like an early tableau of Athenians charging down a muddy hill or Themistokles sinking into an ocean filled with ruins and debris.

For much of the film, however, the stylistic flourishes are cranked up to near self-parody levels. Every action sequence is filled with the original film's signature speed-ramping. Then seemingly every moment in those action sequences merits a glamorous slow motion action shot, whether it be an explosion (standard), 15 shots of slaves rowing (less standard) or a panicked horse's eye (hilarious).

Even the Pollock-like blood splatter has been amped up, with each stabbing and evisceration gushing an over-the-top stream of goopy CG blood that makes each Persian casualty look like he's doing his best impersonation of the Exxon Valdez. It looks more cartoon-y than cool. All of the thick arterial spray flung into the air mixes with the mud, rain, oil, debris, ocean mist and the fog clinging to the lens, making a movie that looks cluttered, messy and dirty, a dangerously suffocating layer of artificial griminess placed on top of an already suffocatingly thick later of artificial cleanliness.

While the visuals and brutality has been turned up from 10 to 11, the characters and story are cranked far down – and they were already close to mute in "300." I never thought we'd live in a world where I'd miss Gerard Butler, but here I am: "Rise of an Empire" desperately needs his growly magnetism. Stapleton, on the other hand, is a bore. He mostly looks disinterested or vaguely confused, and his low-impact performance takes any punch away from what is at heart a blunt-force movie.

The rest of his crew fares little better. The first film had actors like a then unknown Michael Fassbender bring some charisma and color where there was none on the page. Here, Themistokles' crew is a band of faceless abs, and when the script tries to make the audience care (like the father-son storyline from its predecessor, just flipped a bit), it falls flat.

With a dreary set of characters – even a returning Lena Headey as Sparta's queen is dulled down – and an unfocused, overstretched story that lacks a strong purpose, all that's left is the action. And yeah, sure, there's some visually cool bloodletting (fueled by Junkie XL's driving, pounding score). After a while, though, with no one or nothing to care about, all the slick swordplay and clunky ship battles look and feel the same. Seen one Greek messily crack open a fleshy jar of Persian Smuckers, seen them all.

There is one thing to care about, and oddly enough in this massive hunky bro-down, it's the leading lady. Commanding both the Persian troops and the screen – all while wearing the finest in Prada's battle armor/gown collection – Eva Green is a snarling, alluring and furious delight. She has one of the few roles written with some actual meat on it, and she sinks her teeth right into it, tearing into every line, action and beheading.

She has this amusing subplot in which, no matter how much she tries, she just can't find a competent man to stand by her side as her lover and fellow commanding warlord. It's like "The Bachelorette" but if those moving on to the next round were gifted the right to a pristine carotid artery rather than a rose.

Even the king she helped create doesn't live up to her vicious standards. The only man who does is, unfortunately, on the other side of the battlefield: Themistokles (to her, at least; the audience doesn't know what she sees in the dullard). When the two of them meet up to discuss strategy (on "her humble barge," a phrase never before uttered in the seduction process), it turns into a scene of intense, crazed sexual combat that features more emotion, intrigue and strategy than any of the movie's more literal battles.

Their campy rendezvous is eventually cut off, but it reaches its climax much later – as you'd expect from a "300" movie – on the battlefield, topped with the most phallic death in recent cinematic memory.

As much as she tries, Artemisia just can't find a guy who can match her vigor, smarts, brawn and motivation. No wonder Green plays the role with so much enthusiasm. She can probably relate, frustratingly unable to find anything in "300: Rise of an Empire" on her level.



Theaters and showtimes for 300: Rise of an Empire
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