Tuesday, 10 June 2014

All Style and No Substance - 300: Rise of an Empire Review

Zack Snyder’s 300 was a stylish action fantasy, driven by its story, performances and stylishly edited action pieces. Personally I was a huge fan. So I was quite excited when I heard about a sequel in the works. Unfortunately, I was left somewhat disappointed. Directed by Noam Murro, rather than Snyder, the influences from the original are certainly there, but seem messy and unpolished.

Taking place before, alongside and after the events of the first film, 300: Rise of an Empire follows Themistocles, a Greek warrior who killed the father of the God-King Xerxes, and in turn led to the events of the first film. Part origin story, part sequel, the progression of events is interesting, if a little unclear at times. It’s a true story, told relatively well through a series of slow motion fight scenes and political debates – the latter taking a noticeable back seat here.

The bulk of the film – similar to the first – is made up of the battle scenes between the Persians and the Greeks, but this time around, they aren’t nearly as enjoyable and entertaining as they were before. The slow motion is over-used – each sword swing slows down – to the point where it gets tedious and interrupts the dynamic flow that the action should have. Rather than being a stylish and cool-looking way of showing particularly violent or dramatic parts of the battles, entire sequences now seem to be slowed down, which takes away from the overall enjoyment factor.

The most intrusive part however is the gore. I don’t mind blood in films. I can watch Kick-Ass, Saw, Hostel, whatever. I’m not squeamish. It’s when the blood is so much that it actually takes away from the experience, as I was too busy thinking how stupid it all looked to enjoy it. People being punched in the face would spurt pints of blood, a stab wound would get a spray of a good few feet, it just gets ridiculous. Being a film in the 300 franchise, we knew it would be dark, gritty and gory, but the film tries too hard, and crosses the line between stylish and gratuitous.

Come on. This is ridiculous.

Sullivan Stapleton leads as Themistocles, a far less likeable character than Gerard Butler’s Leonidas from the word go. Stapleton also doesn’t perform as well as Butler. He tries, but he has big sandals to fill, and unfortunately, he doesn’t. He delivers a rousing speech to his troops at one point, about fighting for the men beside you, fighting for Greece, etc etc. This doesn’t come close to Butler’s infamous “tonight we dine in hell!” speech, and only serves to remind us how good the predecessor was, and how disappointing this sequel is.

The star of the show is Eva Green, who – as she does with all her roles – throws herself into it 100%. She performs well with what she’s given, portraying both the menacing and seductive sides of her character well, but with the amount of hype and dread put into her fighting skill by the narrator, she could have done with a better choreographed action scene towards the climax, rather than just swinging her swords at some faceless soldiers who don’t put up much of a fight. Even her duel with Thermistocles was basic and brief.

One area that this film improves over the first is in its scale. Focusing largely on Naval battles on ships, the film features a number of large scale set pieces. Ships crash, splinter and explode in spectacular fashion, and the climactic battle is entertaining - despite the intrusive slow motion and ridiculous amounts of blood. Even in this though, faults can be found. The special effects range from dreadful to not bad – one scene that stands out in my memory features a number of cartoon characters on a raft...that’s what it looked like anyway.

When you’re following a film such as 300, you have to be sure to maintain the standards set. Unfortunately, these standards were too high for Murro to fill, and proves that you can’t make a Zack Snyder film without Zack Snyder. Murro tries to replicate Snyder’s signature style, but goes a little overboard with the features that made the original enjoyable, ending up with a tangled mess of blood, swords, sandals and abs.

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