300: Rise of an Empire (2014), directed by Noam Murro
Need for Speed (2014), directed by Scott Waugh
Well devoted readers, I haven’t been doing many written reviews of wide release movies lately and for that I apologize. I’ve been film festivalling. I’ve been podcasting. I’ve been Oscaring. I’ve been doing real work (lame). Now it’s time to get back to basics. I’m talking Double-Shot.
I was not a fan of the original 300 when it came out in 2006. I haven’t seen it since so I can offer no take on whether it would have grown on me or not, but I remember at the time finding it ugly, cruel and depressing.
The sequel is perhaps no less cruel and is assuredly some form of war porn, even if of the Greek variety, with its fascination with slow motion blood splattering and decapitations, all highlighted in hero-worship tales of battlefield glory.
It’s a zany, intense film which never lets up in its trudging march through battle and death. In many ways it is as dismal as the first film, but I must admit I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.
It’s not a great film, by any means, but there are things within it which are great and made it worth watching.
Eva Green has been getting a lot of attention for her role in the film, as Artemisia, the naval commander of the Persian army. Green is easily the best thing in the movie, as the tough, vengeful war commander. It’s a meaty role, with Green strutting about topside, fire in her eyes, ordering failed commanders to their deaths, balancing her thirst for revenge and power with her public role as puppet leader of the kingdom.
Okay. I’ll talk about it now. There is a sex scene in the movie which has been all the talk. I haven’t read much of the talk, but I know it’s out there. I’ll weigh in by saying it has to be one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, and I’ll tell you why: it is a crucial, defining moment of the film.
The coitus is between her and the leader of the Greek army, Themistocles (who I thought throughout the movie was named The Mistocles). She invites him to talk truce, they end up, er, doing more than talking it out.
One reason I like the scene is power dynamics. I don’t think women playing tough roles is the only or the best way to encourage feminism in film, but it’s hard to deny the play with gender roles in this scene. Artemisia is both dominating and submissive, she initiates the tryst, she controls much of it, and she ends it before it can, er, climax.
Themistocles leaves her presence looking like he’s witnessed a car crash he can’t quite make sense of.
It’s unlike anything one typically sees in a mainstream movie. Beyond that, I liked how it worked so well to define both characters and to act as a microcosm of the entire struggle the film is about, including the thirst for power, the desire to dominate, the violence of it.
Unfortunately one great set piece does not a great film make. The rest of the movie is occasionally riveting, often spectacular to look at, but also numbingly garish and overblown. It’s turned up to 11 the entire way, and that’s a hard level to sustain.
It also lost some of its feminist points with the rapey bits, including a lingered on pair of 3D breasts early in the film as two shadowy enemies drag a topless woman away, with the eventual result heavily implied. Another lingering shot shows Artemisia watch her family get murdered and presumably her mother get raped. Unnecessary. We got the point in the first few frames, no need to linger, especially in a film which celebrates every other act of violence it portrays.
Overall I was impressed by much in 300: Rise of an Empire and it made me appreciate how much more Eva Green we need on our screens, but it still left me feeling the way the first film had: that I had just witnessed something rather rotten ugly, despite how good it looks. It celebrates violence in a intentional way even slasher movies would have a hard time pulling off. It’s grand, beautiful and heroic, in the way war is portrayed to young men and women to convince them to join up.
Sure it’s mostly irrelevant because it pertains to ancient wars with little resemblance to today’s conflicts, but still, something about it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Need for Speed, on the other hand, left me with drool in my mouth as I enjoyed a quick nap during it’s ludicrous running time and pathetic attempts at drama.
Mean? Maybe. But here’s the thing, I went in with so very little in the way of expectations, and even those were not met.
I love car chase movies. I love ’70s carsploitation, any film related to racing and even the Fast and Furious franchise. I came in to the cinema already a believer. But Need for Speed has to be the flimsiest, most pathetically put together car movie ever. I can’t imagine anyone getting much out of it.
The film is based on the video games, early versions of which I was a big fan of as a child. But the movie is painfully full of itself and takes no joy at all in its own ridiculousness, leaving the entire affair a dreary mess.
It’s a story about an elite illegal car race featuring some of the fastest cars in the world. It’s also a revenge tale, about a driver seeking vengeance for the death of a friend. All of this is played straight faced, with brooding music, sweeping statements about life and the “high art” of racing, slow-motion fires of hell explosions and men revelling in brotherly love.
All of it, as poorly written and carried out as it is, comes of as pathetically serious and unintentionally ludicrous.
One thing I found interesting was how much collateral damage feels different in a movie versus the video game. In the game it’s no big deal, in fact it’s fun, to run regular cars off the road, take out police cars and cause general mayhem. In the movie it felt terribly wrong.
For one thing, nobody dies in the games and the cars even barely get damaged, no matter what you put them through, so there are no consequences. It is a fantasy world with no resemblance to the real one.
In the movie people clearly are able to die and the crashes are real: glass shattering, metal scraping real. Every time these characters cause two regular Joes to smash into each other at highway speeds it’s jarring and unsettling. At least for me it was.
The worst part is when one of the characters hits a homeless person’s shopping cart filled with their belongings, an incident which is played for laughs not once, but twice in the film. I get this is a movie, and a movie designed for perhaps jockish gear heads, but are we not past the point yet where terrorizing homeless people is no longer funny? As I read somewhere else, in car chase movies you hit fruit carts, not homeless people’s carts, otherwise it just comes off as cruel.
All this nitpicking is maybe indicative of a larger problem: Need for Speed doesn’t know what it’s fighting for.
Even in the classic 1970s car movies, the wanton destruction of human life is not taken flippantly. The heroes of those movies are driving for the common man, kicking against a system which is hurtful for all. And the movies themselves have a tragic understanding that these characters are ultimately doomed, they will not be the ones to move society forward. They are cool for their rebellion, but they ultimately suffer for their isolation.
I love Super Soul in Vanishing Point as he cheers on Kowalski, a man who has had enough and refuses to be a part of the system which has let him down. He calls Kowalski “the last American hero.” But Kowalski can’t survive for the system to move forward. He must die in a fiery explosion.
Why is Michael Keaton’s modern Super Soul, the Internet broadcasting Monarch, so much less effective? I could have done without his character entirely. Is it because we no longer feel that distrust of authority? We no longer cheer for those who push against conformity?
The thing is neither Monarch nor Aaron Paul’s Tobey, the film’s defacto Kowalski, are fighting against the system; they’re a part of it. Monarch is a rich man-child who puts on the main race of the movie, little more than a wingnut version of John Cleese’s character in Rat Race.
And Tobey’s quest for revenge is hard to take seriously when he is putting so many ordinary people at risk for his own personal vendetta. I don’t see Tobey stopping to see if any of the drivers in the crashes he causes are OK, as Kowalski did. I don’t see him thinking twice about running anyone off the road, figure of authority or otherwise, to get what he wants. I don’t see him fighting a system. Instead we see him buying into that system, winning the film’s finale race in the very multimillion dollar car which killed his friend. His eventual elevation to the ranks of the very assholes who tried to kill and humiliate him is celebrated. Kowalski would have never crossed that finish line.
Tobey is no hero, no figure of rebellion. He is hard to root for. And the film doesn’t understand this, which makes it impossible to enjoy. I haven’t even written about the chase scenes here, which frankly should be all that matter. But the film is such a bore no amount of vehicular stuntwork can save it.
300: Rise of an Empire and Need for Speed are in cinemas now.