***/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A
starring Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro
screenplay by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad
directed by Noam Murro
by Walter Chaw If Kenji Misumi made gladiator movies instead of the legendarily violent, indisputably awesome Lone Wolf and Cub series, they'd probably have played a lot like Noam Murro's ludicrous but committed 300: Rise of an Empire (hereafter 300 II). Pornographically (in the best way) violent and generous with Eva Green's ample, and horrifyingly-intense, charms, it tells a parallel story to Zack Snyder's gay porn-meets-military-recruitment video 300--a naval (and navel--ha!, priceless) intrigue involving Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) fending off Persian commander Artemisia (Green) in a sea of sometimes-literal blood. The film is completely unapologetic in its hard-R excess, counting among its atrocities child-rape and sexual slavery in the baddie's backstory with more squarely-clenched jaws than a Dick Tracy convention. It's a testosterone-sloppy cock-opera, of course, lending its countless skewerings the musky weight of sadomasochistic homoeroticism, but by sprinkling in Green's bonzer performance and, late in the game, Lena Headey's grief-stricken Queen Gorgo, 300 II suddenly becomes this rape-revenge/avenging-angel exploitation slasher. It's good, in other words. In a weak moment, I might admit it's even better than that.
While mostly fancy and conjecture, it's no more so than Caesar's Conquest of Gaul. In fact, 300 II captures exactly that sense of masculine inflation common to histories from this period. It's romantic, and Romanticist: Its men are Men, its women are holy Christ Women. They're dominatrix fantasies in a sense (Artemisia in her metal and leather and Gorgo in her furious widowhood), yet both Green and Headey, veterans of roles like these, subvert easy objectification. Artemisia, in particular, uses her sexuality as a biological weapon of sorts--it would be an interesting exercise to count the euphemisms for castration for which she, alone, is responsible. In the end, the picture reminds a great deal of Luc Besson's The Messenger, another askew history that somehow feels closer to the truth than more sober accounts. Gorgo and Artemisia were, indeed, contemporaries--and in the modern imagination, their relative power in their respective dead civilizations resembles a superhero movie. Well, a grindhouse superhero movie, anyway.
Call it Sergio Corbucci's Thermopylae. 300 II takes place in a predominantly CG environment, stylized to the point of abstraction. It exists in the same world as Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, acting like an adult-themed graphic novel and working very much like a film noir with its dangerous women, crumbling societies, and perverse sexuality. In re-mythologizing the already-mythologized, the picture reminds of O Brother, Where Art Thou?--doing for Herodotus what the Coens did for Homer. The moment I "got" it occurs during a pitched battle (they're all pitched) where the corpses of the recently-vanquished sink into the murky deep to be devoured by sea monsters. Yes. It's the best kind of nonsense: exuberant and breathless. Like Sanjuro's geysers of grue, Murro's vision arrays humans as high-pressure blood-balloons hungry to be pricked. It leans forward--its intentions are either completely noble (the death of a father and the vengeance of his boy) or unambiguously evil (the film's best line is, "You set fire to the only part of Greece worth anything"), and it's curiously freed from Snyder's/Frank Miller's distasteful abhorrence of difference. There are underdogs in 300 II--i.e., the women--and they're ferocious, unfailingly the equal of their male counterparts and tormentors. Just as misogyny-branded slasher films usually end with Final Girls, 300 II works like it does because the people its predominantly-male audience end up rooting for are its wronged women. Who knew the 300 sequel would be a date movie in all its puerile glory?
THE BLU-RAY DISC
300 II lands on next-gen in duelling 2-D and 3D Blu-ray editions; this review refers to the former. The stunning 2.40:1, 1080p/AVC-encoded presentation is every bit as excessive as its content. Excessively romantic, excessively crimson-soaked, excessively saturated--though, ironically, there's no hint of colour-bleed. It's gloriously fake, and why not, when digital verisimilitude is doomed to anachronism almost instantly? Every shadowed valley of every water-dieted six-pack, every raven strand of Green's hair, and every drop of synthetic blood is in razor-sharp relief. (For all that, it still looks closer to film than to video.) Whites sometimes run hot enough to burn holes in the screen, but I'm convinced that's more of the same indulgence in extremes. A booming 7.1 DTS-HD MA track vomits out volume and depth from every channel. The bottom is big; the sloshing of fluids is enveloping. AV-wise, 300 II is reference material.
HiDef extras begin with "Behind the Scenes" (30 mins.), a production overview that talks about inspiration for the sequel, the drafting of director Murro, and Snyder's vision for a trilogy. Some greenscreen behind-the-scenes shots confirm that the practical set consisted of little more than a few decks. Such was never in doubt--and post-The Matrix, that no longer holds any special fascination. Better, much better, is "Real Leaders & Legends" (25 mins.), focusing on the Herodotus source material, the historical importance of the events magnified and exploded in the film, and the places where 300 II diverges from the somewhat fanciful document. It's an essential piece, something that could've appeared on History Channel. "Women Warriors" (12 mins.) covers the movie's two strong female characters. A historian confirms that both women, Gorgo and Artemisia, had genuine influence during their time, no matter the amplification of Gorgo into a whirling dervish. There's fact-checking here, too; it's another strong featurette. "Savage Warships" (11 mins.) delves into the navies during that time--the strategies and evolution of technologies. Brilliant. Finally, "Becoming a Warrior" (5 mins.) essays in brief the training endured by the lead actors. Doesn't look like much fun, though it does cause one to fantasize about getting paid a ridiculous amount of money to get into ridiculous shape. The disc, which cues up with a now-premature trailer for Jupiter Ascending, comes with DVD and digital copies of the film.
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