Here we go. It’s March – that time of the year when the Oscars has just wafted its last dying fart of the film-going season so that the excrement of the movie business could topple out into our cineplexes without worrying about any golden statuettes. First out of Hollywood’s clunky butthole this year is 300: Rise of an Empire, a side-prequel of Zack Snyder’s 2006 blockbuster that nobody really asked for (except for the producers, because there’s always a cow that needs more milking somewhere in the dried-up Hollywood hills). Where its predecessor managed to be a rip-roaring, if ballistic, hyper-stylised and surrealistic take on the sword-and-sandals epic, this new one sucks out whatever testosterone and self-conscious workmanship the previous film offered and churns out a bloated, tiresome and egregiously machismo depiction of the Battle of Artemisium, a naval clash set largely in the tempestuous waters of the Aegean sea. It’s hard to imagine anyone indulging in this clusterfuck of repetitive slow-motion sequences, gratuitous violence and airbrushed pectorals unless you’re a Men’s Health subscriber, chugs protein shake and totally into abs.
The sole problem that lies at the bloody, black, empty heart of Rise of an Empire (if the film ever has a semblance of a heart) is that its violence is tortuously graphic at first, and becomes increasingly wearisome throughout its running time. The first few body slashes, impaling and beheading send a few shocks down the system but as it goes on and repeats ad infinitum, ad nauseum, the sight of muscled men slicing each others’ flesh in ultra slow-mo has the visceral effect of the bloodiest yet dreariest video game you’ve ever played on a console. Some guy named Noam Murro is hired to amp the size and scope, unleashing as much body-count and gore as graphically possible, including a needlessly protracted naval warfare big enough to blitz any CGI studio, only to produce an output that’s dramatically less involving and off-putting. And somewhere in the middle of this blatant parade of gung-ho patriotism, there’s the most bizarre sex scene where Sullivan Stapleton’s Athenian admiral Themistocles and Eva Green’s vengeful scorned-Grecian-turned-Persian-commander Artemisia roll over the hay like hormonally-charged tigers at power-play. It’s both the film’s most interesting and most ridiculous set-piece, only because it takes you away from the tautological battle sequences and at the same time reminding you of that godawful sexual savagery between Colin Farrell and Rosario Dawson in Oliver Stone’s ill-conceived Alexander biopic.
When Murro’s film does mute down, character beats teeters on the verge of comatose. Stapleton, all bulging biceps and rippling musculature, is hardly an actor who can provide gravitas, his loudest battlecries sounding like a whimper next to Gerard Butler’s batshit, vocal-chord breaking performance as King Leonidas. There’s also Callan Mulvey and Brit newcomer Jack O’Connell’s father-and-son dynamics that barely registers a convincing emotional note. Even Rodrigo Santoro’s god-king Xerxes, despite being given a backstory, remains a walking cliché with hardly anything to do other than look like somebody with a monumental piercing gun fetish, blinged and bronzed up in a desperate bit to win the Most Outrageous Costume prize in a gay float parade. So it’s left to the female counterparts to give the film a much-needed salvation – Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo appears briefly yet effectively, but it’s Green who steals the entire hoopla with her spectacularly lunatic, unhinged turn as Artemisia, taking that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” into scene-chewing, kohl-smearing levels. You can trust Green to do the ‘malevolent Gothic bitch’ type well, but she exceeds that here vigorously, giving Rise of an Empire any valid reason to watch. If there ever is any reason to see this, which is next to none.