300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

300 Rise of an EmpireReleased: March 7, 2014. Directed by: Noam Murro. Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey. Runtime: 102 min.

300: Rise of an Empire is a good sequel to Zack Snyder’s 2007 film, 300. There are sequels, prequels, and the odd sort-of meanwhile adventures movie, and this happens to be all three. It’s a prequel because it shows some things that started this war, and at the same time reminding us about it because a lot of people would forget after seven years; a meanwhile adventures because it shows what wars happen on the water while the 300 were fighting; and a direct sequel, following what happens after the mighty 300 fell. They have made quite an influence on this film. This follows the Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and Artemisia (Eva Green), merciless commander of the Persian navy.

While the first film followed the Spartan warriors, this film follows the Athenians, who are fighting for freedom – and represent a not-so savage Greek race, but still show their body armourless abs. Like I said, this film is largely a meanwhile adventures that takes place on the open seas, and it’s awesome watching war tactics happen on the water. The action sequences are spectacular, beautifully filmed, and have the same visual style as the first (not nearly as fresh seven years later, mind you) and a whole lot of gore. What else can one expect from the mind of Frank Miller? Who, by the way, is the authour of the graphic novel Xerxes upon which this is based. The film is better in 3D because one can easily tell where 3D is implied if one watches this in 2D. There’s splatters of blood, spears flying, and it just adds another great visual layer to the experience. At one point when blood splatters there’s even a smudge on the camera, where you’ll probably ask “Can someone wipe that off?”

The cinematography’s strong, even if there is a constant fogginess about it in the background, because of the mist on the water, and a mild glare when the sun is out. But it’s not noticeable when the fights are occurring, thankfully; probably because the editing is so impressive, and who would try to focus on the glare of it all when there are limbs and heads flying everywhere? I love the fighting tactics of the Greeks. The action scenes are definitely the best part of the film; and the drama is solid, as well.

There’s one particularly memorable scene where the leaders of each opposing country have a battle of power, deciding who will come out on top, so to speak. Sullivan Stapleton is adequate as a character who isn’t very compelling, but he’s great in combat sequences. I don’t think I’d ever rush out to see a film he’s leading, but he’s pretty good. Green is brilliant as her character, and she makes cruelty look sexy. She is just awesome in and out of battle, and a chilling villain at times, fuelled by vengeance. She wants to avenge her former king Darius (killed by Mistokles a few years prior at the Battle of Marathon), a motivation she shares with Xerxes, and to get back at the Greeks who killed her entire village, so she’s putting all Greeks in one category for that one. A lot of these characters are fuelled by vengeance, particularly Lena Headey’s Queen Gorga. She’s great, too, by the way. Xerxes gets a cool, origins story treatment told at the beginning, which is a real treat. I have a feeling the graphic novel is called  Xerxes because the villains have well-thought out development, but the hero’s development is light. Evidently, this works spectacularly as an action film, but it’s not strong in the ‘developing good protagonists’ department.

But this is an action movie, and that’s why you’re going to see this. We’ve seen some of this action before in the first one, but at least some of it feels fresh. It’s mostly just action on boats instead of land, so no phalanx formations this time around. The storyline isn’t nearly as strong as the first. It’s partly because the main character isn’t entirely compelling in his development, and this just isn’t as engaging as the great David and Goliath story that is the 300 Spartans. If you go in expecting more of the same with some fresh material at least in terms of fight location, this is a good time at the movies.

Score: 75/100

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The Last Stand (2013)

The Last StandThe Last Stand

Release Date: January 18, 2012

Director: Jee-won Kim

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville

Runtime: 107 min

Tagline: Retirement is for sissies

The most notorious, wanted drug kingpin in the Western hemisphere escapes a prisoner transfer and speeds to the Mexican border, where the only thing in his path is a town sheriff (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his inexperienced staff.

Director Jee-won Kim makes his American film debut with The Last Stand, Schwarzenegger’s comeback vehicle. This film does a lot of things right, like its simplistic plot, and a few things wrong, like its characterization and storytelling that has room for improvement.

Firstly, the main problem with the film is the characterization. For a fun action flick, it does admirably attempt to develop the characters, but it’s not easy to care for them thoroughly. Jerry (Zach Gilford) is developed as a young rookie Deputy trying to make it to the big city as he is slightly bored; the Sheriff, Ray Owens, is developed as a former narcotics officer who wanted to take it easy with a small-time Sheriff position; Sarah (Jaimie Alexander) and Frank (Rodrigo Santoro) are established as ex-girlfriend and boyfriend; and Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) is established as a Weapon Museum owner that’s open every second Thursday of each month from 12 P.M. to 3 P.M.; and that’s all the attempt at development, really. Everyone else is established as roles really; angry FBI agent (Forest Whitaker’s John Bannister), damsel in distress (Genesis Rodriguez’ Ellen Richards), insane criminal (Eduardo Noriega’s Gabriel Cortez) and the main deputy (Luis Guzmán’s Mike Figuerola). I didn’t care for all the characters, and the ones I did care for slightly was because they were such good presences (mostly just the Sheriff, Guzmán’s Mike and Knoxville’s Lewis Dinkum.

The other problem with the film is just a little hole in the storytelling. It was probably established that Gabriel Cortez is a ruthless drug kingpin, but if it was, it immediately went out of mind. He just seemed like a criminal everyone is imtimidated by for some reason or a criminal who has a lot of money and is driving a really fast Corvette ZR1.

One must keep in mind, however, that this is mostly just a fun action flick, and the attempt at the character development is just a bonus.

Now, for the question on everyone’s mind: is this a worthy comeback flick for Arnie? Yes, yes it is, with nods to earlier Schwarzenegger that make for funny lines. Arnie, now 65, may comment on how old he is, but he proves he is still capable with a gun and can be in a real fight-to-the-death wrestling match that’s even better than Stallone vs. Van Damme in The Expendables 2. He also can put up a better fight than a SWAT team or multiple road blocks, just because nothing’s more threatening than a body builder. As a guy standing on his own, Ray Owens is a fairly memorable action hero to be added to Arnie’s filmography. However, put him beside the show-stealing Knoxville, he is forgettable. We forget about Knoxville’s Dinkum until he comes back for the last 50 minutes, where he gets the biggest laughs of the feature (besides a rifle-wielding granny who comes out of nowhere). He has finally found a role where his maniacal laughter and crazy comedy works absolute wonders. Oh, and he [Knoxville] and Guzmán make a pretty stellar team, because at some points in the film they’re both confused by what the time period is (examples: swords and shields – Medieval Times; and a Tommy Gun – 1940s gangster era).

The fine pacing all leads up to an extremely fun shoot-out that lasts a fairly appropriate amount of time. If your stomach can handle all the blood, it’s even more fun. That’s what this film offers: bloody violence, a few big laughs, somewhat poorly formed characters, an effectively simplistic plot, and a few nice cars being traditionally wrecked. If that’s your idea of a good time, check out Arnie’s return to the big screen.

80/100

Did you know? This is Schwarzenegger’s first leading role since 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.