Gun to my head, I might be able to say something positive about 300: Rise of an Empire. In a vacuum, I suppose I'd call its aesthetic appealing, its production value impressive, or its giant rhinos kind of cool. But these elements cannot be taken alone, embroidered on a gigantic patch of joyless pain that infests your conscious mind from its inceptive moments on.
It's not so much that the 300 sequel fails at its desired conceit — it gives you exactly what it promises: gore, swordplay, angry sex, halfwit maxims about honor and manliness and the love of the fight. It's simply that its desired conceit is dehumanizing agony. Holding too hard and too long to its mission statement to top its Zack Snyder-helmed predecessor in scope, scale, and spilled pints of blood, Noam Murro's Rise of an Empire doesn't put any energy into filtering its spectacular mayhem through whatever semblance of a humanistic touch made the first one feel like a comprehensive movie.
Now, it's been a good eight years since I've seen 300, and I can't say that I was particularly fond of it. But beneath its own eye-widening layer of violence, there was a tangible idea of who King Leonidas was, what this war meant, and why Sparta mattered. No matter how much clumsy exposition is hurled our way, all we really know here is that there are two sides and they hate each other.
When Rise of an Empire asks us to engage on a more intimate level, which it does — the personal warfare between Sullivan Stapleton (whose name, I guess, is Themistokles) and Bad Guy Captain Eva Green (a.k.a. Artemisia) is founded on the idea that she likes him, and he kind of digs her (re: angry sex), and they want to rule together, but a rose by any other name and all that — we're effectively lost. With characters who don't matter in the slightest, material like this is just filler between the practically striking battle sequences.
But when the "in-between material" is as meaningless as it is in Rise of an Empire, the battles can't function as much more than filler themselves. Filler between the opening titles and closing credits. A game of Candy Crush you play on the subway. Contemptfully insubstantial and not particularly fun, but taking place nonetheless.
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Without even a remote layer of camp — too palpably absent as Rise of an Empire splashes its screen with so much human fluid that "The End" by The Doors will start to play in your head — there's no victory in a movie like this. No characters to latch onto, no story to follow, no joy to be derived. Yes, it might be aesthetically stunning (and really, that's where the one star comes in... well, half a star for that and half for the giant rhinos), but the marvel of its look shrinks under the shadow of the painful vacancy of anything tolerable.
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The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT?
Apparently modest box-office success is good enough for a sequel these days. After watching our hero Chev spend 24 hours keeping his heart going at lightning speed to fight off a deadly poison in the first Crank we now get the High Voltage follow-up which picks up exactly where the story left off. Chev survives a fall to certain death only to wake up three months later to find a Chinese mobster has replaced his all-powerful heart with a battery-operated device that requires constant jolts of electricity in order to stay alive. He escapes and with intermittent charging from car batteries and phone wires embarks on a marathon chase to retrieve his heart and fight off various bad guys including a Mexican gang boss and a group of Chinese triads led by 100-year-old Poon Dong who desires Chev's vital organs (yes even THAT one) for his own purposes.
WHO'S IN IT?
Jason Statham is back as Chev of course displaying the same combination of kickass frenetic action and dumb comedy that marked the first edition. Forced to act the human equivalent of a Road Runner cartoon Statham gives it his all but it's a stretch to say the least. Everyone else plays mainly one-dimensional buffoons including the moronic hyped-up Chinese stereotype from Bai Ling who has been given lines like: "This dude my Kevin Costner and he gonna beat you off" or "You need me like Whitney Houston dude." Apparently the 17-year-old The Bodyguard was the last movie these screenwriters saw. Clifton Collins Jr. (Sunshine Cleaning) seems to revel in overacting the Mexican baddie El Huron while a really old-looking David Carradine destroys any fond memories of Kung Fu as he plays the jokey Poon Dong. Back from the original are Dwight Yoakam literally phoning his part in as the ever helpful Doc and Amy Smart as Chev's hot girlfriend.
It's in focus.
Moviegoers with the stomach to watch nipples and kneecaps being sliced and diced dumb profane dialogue spelled out in graphic letters on the screen in case you're hard of hearing over-the-top acting and sleazy direction — you all will love it. It's a shame to see the usually solid Statham waste his potential in stuff that aims for the lowest common denominator and hits its target.
MOST CREATIVE SEX SCENE IN A JASON STATHAM MOVIE:
The horny and uninhibited Statham and Smart turn the racing track at Hollywood Park into their own personal motel room as they horse around in X-rated style while the betting crowd cheers them on. We're not sure about Win or Place but these two definitely Show.
MOST PROPHETIC LINE:
During outtakes over the end credits Statham blurts out "It's so hard to keep a straight face!" We were thinking the same thing Jason.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Netflix. But you know skip this and rent the first Crank instead where there is at least a modicum of originality.