300: Rise of an Empire
300: Rise of an Empire, the probably belated sequel/prequel/sidequel to Zack Snyder’s 300 (not his worst film, but the one that turned him from “that guy who directed the surprisingly awesome Dawn of the Dead remake to the hack who pretends slo-mo is an aesthetic) is just about the easiest thing to review in the world. Putting aside the rather curious fact that someone thought Frank Miller’s fictional fantasyland where bros cavort and scamper about like Gods and the abs flex with determination and zeal was a fiction that could support something as ungainly as a “sequel/prequel/sidequel”, the film is essentially a done deal from the concept alone. “If you liked blank, you’ll probably like this” is not something a reviewer should trot out too often, for it it behooves us to write about films on their own terms. But gee does this film play like a copy-paste of its predecessor in every possible way, so much so that it can’t but invite the comparison. Trade in browns, golds, and reds for browns, golds, and blues and you’ve pretty much nailed the appeal of Rise of an Empire.
Except one thing: Eva Green, waltzing in like the Grandest Dame who ever lived and taking full control of the screen in one of the loopiest performances to grace a film of this budget-caliber since the heyday of the early nineties. Green is not “good” in the conventional sense, but this is only because she takes “the conventional sense”, steps on it, claws it to pieces, dances over the remains, and then eats it with a side-serving of “good sense” as it continues to scream its own milquetoast death. It is the sort of villain performance for which words no longer hold meaning, but it absolutely should be seen to be believed.
It is a pity that, in order to see her performance, however, one has to see the 300: Rise of an Empire that exists around her. She is magnetic on camera, but she can only be in so much of the film. Newcomer Sullivan Stapleton opposite Green in the hero’s role is a wash outside of his matinee-idol name, and director Noam Murro does nothing but mimic Snyder’s aesthetic to a fault. I suppose we can give him credit for not over-editing the action like so many other modern directors do, but this too is following in Snyder’s only one real strength as a director these days.
If he takes Snyder’s strength though, he matches it with his weaknesses. He certainly over-directs, whipping the camera around and indulging in all sorts of movements without ever hinting that he knows why a camera should be moved in the first place. It is a very obviously directed film, erratically slowing and speeding up in ways that are alternately indifferent and misguided, accentuating and fetishizing the childish vocalization of dudes killing less like they have need to than because they wish to show-off for the camera in hopes of landing a major movie role in Ancient Greece or some other more modern place where pageantry is the de facto lifestyle of the culture. But I for one don’t know where one might find such a location, would you?
Outside of this, the film is grasping for straws. Beyond the whole pointlessness of the affair and the way it doubles over backward to find new avenues of exploring this fiction and taking it seriously when the whole idea is patently ridiculous, there really isn’t anything else to say. At least this self-conviction is amusing enough; it gives us reviewers something. In fact, that this isn’t simply a “here is more dudes duding about” spiritual successor with characters that lack formal ties to the first film is really an endless font for bewilderment. It’s as though someone actually felt like the hard-hitting character drama and ties to the specific fiction were what made 300 a success in the first place. These are the weird literalists who complain that The Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift sacrificed the integrity of the franchise by avoiding the stars of the first two films, without ever bothering to wonder whether or not Drift was a pile of garbage incapable of being saved even if Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn had shaven their heads for the roles. The sort of people who like 300 and think that a 300 film without Leonidas would sacrifice some sort of bizarre definition of artistic integrity and narrative consistency the original film apparently had in their minds. This film, Rise of an Empire, may not be the film they wanted, but it tries so very hard to make them like it. And it is, whether they like it or not, absolutely the film they deserve.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
If 300: Rise of an Empire was a sequel no one wanted, A Dame to Kill For is a more curious beast. On one hand, it had an even longer in the womb gestation, historically a no-no for any would-be sequel. But at the least the lengthy time could serve to freshen some heads, giving the film the off-chance of seeming less a confused retread and more a gonzo, off-the-wall miscalculation. If it failed, at least it might be an interesting, creative failure, especially with Robert Rodriguez in tow. On the other hand, the fact that its predecessor was, at least, a successful gambit at matching Frank Miller’s graphic-paneled bluster to a sensible cinematic alternative only meant there was more room for a sequel to fail. After all, just who out there was clamoring for new experimentation with that brimming-with-potential long-lost art-house classic 300 from seven years prior, the film that should have alighted the fires of independent young cinephiles the world over to rise up against the tired era of mainstream filmmaking and follow in its muscular frat-boy image to remake the world of cinema a new? Sin City at least meant something artistically, once upon a time, when Robert Rodriguez managed to smuggle some damn talent into the affair. However, its impact has been dented over the ensuing decade, and its sequel posited an opportunity to knock it down further.
Especially when we take a gander at the source material itself; situating A Dame to Kill For in context only reveals how the renewable resource the filmmakers imagine in their heads is really only a handful of noteworthy barn-burning short stories sandwiched around some true clunkers. The biggest offense is a moral one. A Dame to Kill For is a worrisome moral proposition, skill or not. Finding its backbone in some of Frank Miller’s lesser Sin City stories from twenty years ago (very much around the time when indifferently nihilist and largely questionable Frank Miller was making the transition to despicable misogynist and unhinged fascist Frank Miller), it raises those stories by adding a couple of “new” ones that see Miller in just about the worst political and moral sort imaginable in the modern era. This is a man who trades on woman’s bodies as maximized curve-zones and finds their spirits little more than man-killing succubi ready for a night on the town. He uses and abuses women as objects, wielding them like a scornful man with a comic book institution to air out his distaste toward the other gender. Add this to his stance on revenge, at some point charitably referred to as “complicated” but now nothing more than curdled anti-society pro-individual hackwork, and you’ve got a real winner in the “feel good about yourself for liking it” department.
It’s a good thing then that A Dame to Kill For doesn’t really do much to deserve liking in the first place, pitting grotesque, superficial moralism against lazy-day filmmaking and a somewhat terrible narrative structure and barely doing enough at a visual level to even qualify as an “interesting failure”. At least it starts on its best footing, with “Just Another Saturday Night” a really sharp little concoction of hard-edges, slightly-more-experimental-than-normal camera angles, genuine expediency and economy of narrative, and just enough Mickey Rourke to make you wish he’d really gotten that career started again, and not enough to grow tired of him. It’s not a great little story, but it’s a nice slice of what could have been.
As for the rest, what can one say? The other proper Miller leftover “A Dame to Kill For” is too long and more than a little gross in its unearned brand of omnivorous nihilism, largely because it is all aimed specifically at Eva Green’s fully naked body doctored in blinding whites and unknowable blacks. Green, for her part, doesn’t rise above the material like she did with her absolutely delirious high-camp turn in Rise of an Empire, but she’s plenty good in her own restrained way, commanding her body and selling the narrative when little else does. We run into problems when the best thing about your film’s best full-length story is a woman being forced to cavort across the screen naked and retain her dignity while she’s doing it. It’s a testament to Green’s strength that she elevates the part to such heights, but that she has to elevate it, and what she is elevating, and that these are the sorts of roles she is getting these days, doesn’t bode well for human nature.
On its own merits though, “A Dame to Kill For” is, if the most immoral of the stories, the best pure noir among them, and it works far better than either of the other two “new” tales scripted by Miller for this film. One of which, the much-touted Joseph Gordon Levitt starrer, really just boils down to a card-game, and not an especially rip-roaring one at that. The dialogue just doesn’t cut like it used to, and what in Sin City felt like an exciting exaggeration of the noir aesthetic done by pros who understand the form here feels like an amateurish fan-fiction. Levitt also isn’t especially good, which may indicate he doesn’t care for the material, or that he isn’t being directed well, or that (most likely) he’s being given nothing to work with, but make of that what you will.
This says nothing of the final tale, “Nancy’s Last Dance”, which sucks, plain and simple. Bringing back Jessica Alba and Bruce Willis from the previous film in ways that grow more untenable by the minute, this is Miller’s ego coasting on his own fame and doing absolutely nothing with it but diving into the deep end of the self and drowning there. That it ends the film is no great shakes either, although at least it isn’t bizarrely interrupted like the Levitt card-game segment (titled “The Long Bad Night”) by the Green segment (also featuring Josh Brolin as the Clive Owen character in the first film, and Owen was frankly far better in the role). This narrative structure, boxing the lengthiest segment in by one of the other segments and then following both up with a third makes essentially no narrative or stylistic sense. It ends up making the whole thing seem like a desperately weird attempt to throw things at the screen without consideration for order and hope they stick. They don’t, and they also indulge in some sort of strange fantasy where-in the fiction of Sin City is good enough to hold up as a cohesive unit where the stories wrap around one another and comment on each other. This film is testament enough to the fact that they don’t, and hopefully now, after a decade of hopeless wandering around in development hell, the series can be put to rest.