MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Action/Stars: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Andrew Tiernan, Andrew Pleavin, Ben Turner, Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender/Runtime: 102 minutes
Well isn’t this just the loveliest sequel you ever saw…..that is if bigger, louder, gorier, more merciless, and way more hostile is your definition of lovely. Indeed here today is the obligatory, of sorts, follow up to the 2007 box office hit 300 known as 300: Rise of an Empire. Indeed, like most follow-ups of its ilk, it manages to release upon its target audience a bloody and quite intense bombardment upon every single sense imaginable that also at the same time raises the stakes in almost every way possible. Not only that, but as a sequel, the film manages to utilize a narrative structure rarely utilized in the form of merging the new narrative about Themistocles from Athens into the already-established narrative fabric consisting of what we saw in the first 300 involving Spartan king Leonidas and his 300-strong army’ fateful stand at Thermopylae. Heck it even manages to put some distance from its predecessor by heading out to sea in order to give the majority of its focus to several important naval battles. Indeed this is all well and good you may be saying, but the bigger question you are most likely asking is “is this a better film than the film that came before it?” Well even though those who have a pure adrenaline fix will most assuredly respond with “tonight we dine in HELL!” and I suppose if viewed as no more and no less than over-the-top, dumb as a box of tacks, over stylized with a historical bent popcorn entertainment then they might just be on to something. Sadly I also have to approach these things with a film analysis bent to it, and in that regard Rise of an Empire may have all the right ingredients for a great film, and there are quite a few things to like about the movie. Yet it still nevertheless is severely lacking what made the original film so special in the first place while also really basking in being as bloody and over-the-top as possible to the point that this film quite often feels more like a parody of 300, think Meet the Spartans without the groan-inducing comedy or Carmen Electra, than an actual follow-up.
The plot is as follows: As King Leonidas goes against the Spartan council and, alongside 300 of his finest warriors, engages in conflict with the forces of the God-king Xerxes, the politicians over in the city-state of Athens decide to engage in a much different combat strategy. A strategy that involves sending out a decent sized naval force to take the battle with the Persians to the sea; a noble feat seeing as the Persian navy is absolutely massive. To lead this campaign, Athens decides to put their trust and faith in their finest champion. His name is Themistocles, and the reason he is highly regarded enough to be given this honor is because it was he who a decade earlier had been the man to kill Xerxes’ dear ol’ dad, King Darius I at the battle of Marathon. Seeing he will have to send a warrior of equal caliber to lead his troops into battle, Xerxes charges his finest warrior, and closest aide Artemisia with being his general in this conflict. Thus, much in the same vein as Leonidas, Themistocles finds he must utilize both skill and careful planning in order to fight this enemy that is immense both in size and strength. Unlike the leader of Sparta’s course of action however, martyrdom will not be the key to victory this time. Indeed it will take all the skill Themistocles has should he want even a remote chance to best Artemisia, all he is as both a man and warrior in order to lead his troops towards beating the odds against them, and eventually all he can conjure up if he is to convince both Sparta and their grieving Queen Gorgo in order to aid Athens and the rest of Greece in their most dire hour. Not only to defeat the Persians, but to once and for all bring Greece together into a single country….
Now it would make my life so much easier to just say that 300: Rise of an Empire is just trying to copy what Zach Snyder did so well back in 2007, but Snyder was actually an active producer on this one so that argument kind of has to go out the window. At the same time however it should be said that this film’s director is nowhere near as assertive or as accomplished when it comes to making movies; as such he really finds it difficult both to conjure up Snyder’s distinct way of doing things whilst also bringing his own style to the film. As a result we get a film that is both eerily similar to what came before, but also remarkedly distinct as well. Indeed whereas Snyder chose to make it feel the audience feel like they were literally being immersed in the world brilliantly done by comic artist Frank Miller, this film’s director chooses to utilize much bigger blotches of CG on a way more glossy canvas and while the film still looks quite incredible, it honestly doesn’t make you feel like you are a part of a comic book vividly brought to life. Yet that’s just the start of things because, in addition to that, you can easily tell where they green-screened and utilized FX, both groups of combatants, with the exception of a few characters feel and act more like action figurines from Small Soldiers brought to life, and the scenes of actual combat just aren’t as convincing as they were last time around. Plus when you also add a much weaker handling of slow-motion, a relative mishandling of framing, and difficulty in setting the stage for some of the more climatic action scenes in the film, what we as an audience are left with is a film that may look like an action film, but there is just something off about the whole thing that we can’t quite put our finger on. Indeed by the time we see the point in the trailer where Themistocles mounts a horse that has been stowed in the belly of his ship and promptly begins riding from one sinking Persian vessel to another whilst also wielding his sword and also issuing some devastating blows to groups of stunned Persian forces it should be said that 95 % of the artistic merit and goodwill the film had until that has just gone down the drain. As for another 3% of the remaining amount, that is taken away in the very next scene involving Themistocles’ sword fight with Artemisia since not only is that more over-the-top than the previously described action scene, but also because it doesn’t even earn the resolution that audiences have been hoping since the beginning of the film that it would.
It should also be pointed out this film’s script also manages to suffer as well. This is because not only due to the elaborate style voice-over narration, but on a more subtle level in the foundation of the narrative itself. Indeed from a historical perspective, the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta were always very much polar opposites. Indeed while Athens was all about resolution through talking and the arts, Sparta was all about resolution through the sharp end of a sword. It was to that end that 300 is very much seen as being the best showcase for the Spartan way there is. Yet while Rise of an Empire manages to focus on this underlying difference in approach, it also tends to both lessen it and make it inconsistent at the same time. Indeed by the end of this you could easily switch out Themistocles and his men with Leonidas and the Spartans at the end of the day, and no one would know the difference. Indeed much of how similar this follow-up is to the original can be found in that mirror effect. I say that because instead of giving us a main character who is much wearier about picking up the sword and who became a great man through other ways, we just simply get a carbon copy of Leonidas. Not only that, but instead of choosing to really go in-depth into the quite intriguing differences between Athens and Sparta, the film chooses to handle them in a manner that doesn’t feel real, as the script would like the movie to, but rather quite superficially. Indeed just how much of an issue is this? Well let me put it to you this way: this film’s third act all literally pivots on Themistocles, an Athenian, pleading with Gorgo, a Spartan, to go to war by his side. Indeed though to many this may be seen as really reaching for something to gripe about, I can tell you that this is very much proof of the writing style that Snyder and co-writer Kurt Johnstad are known for utilizing. Indeed it is a genuine sense of reckless abandon that really is what drives forward the characters and their more….intriguing actions. The best example of which would have to be the…..ahem ” “negotiations” that are engaged in at one point between Themistocles and Artemisia. Indeed even if you were to look at it as a one on one battle it is still quite ridiculous though to be fair given these 2 characters I suppose it’s very much in tone with how they conduct themselves in combat: flailing about and attempting to prove themselves the better when literally we all know the only person they’re concerned with beating is the other.
Yet all in all I guess you are probably wondering: did I strongly dislike Rise of an Empire? It may surprise you to learn this, but not really. Indeed it may not be the full-blown sequel it could quite possibly have been and when faced with its distinct terms it isn’t the most satisfying it could have been either. Yet it still does have the ingredients to make a great movie plus I did enjoy a fair amount of this film as it is. Not only that, but this film’s cast all manage to give the exact kind of performances that the film requires. Indeed Stapleton proves a phenomenal lead who actually brings quite a bit more to the film than his character must have on paper. Indeed by drawing on an inner grit and magnetism, Stapleton manages to give audiences a protagonist who is worthy of being a part of the world of 300. As his antagonistical counterpart Artemisia, Eva Green manages to make for a stunning yet also slyly ruthless femme fatale from beginning to end and manages to walk off with the entire film while also pulling off this film’s action beats with a ferociousness and ruthlessness in the style of a true warrior. Returning from the first one, we get wonderful work from both Rodrigo Santoro who is just as phenomenal as ever as Xerxes especially in the flashback sequences showing his rise to power as well as Lena Headey who, despite being a little out of place in combat, still manages to provide the appropriate amount of emotional gravitas as Queen Gorgo. In addition, the action on the seas is a treat to be had…..that is once you abandon the notion that it will ever be more than just an opportunity to show how much blood can be spilled. Finally the combat aboard the boats, with particular regard to the first 2 battles, is actually thrilling, the duels are actually engaging, and the callbacks to the film’s predecessor are, within reason, moderately clever. Indeed 300 may still be in pretty much every feasible way the better film, but I have a sneaky suspicion that this one was meant for a wider audience to “enjoy”. Thus grab the biggest bag of popcorn you can find, switch off your brain, or at least put it on low-power, for a couple of hours, and witness swords filet into flesh and bone, metal completely dismantle wood, and Persian might collide violently with Athenian and Spartan will. Indeed even though 300: Rise of an Empire doesn’t really manage to honor the memory of either Leonidas or the first film, it still is, flaws and all, quite the entertaining follow-up. Provided that is you don’t mind over-the-top, critic-proof fun being par for the course. On a scale of 1-5 I give 300: Rise of an Empire a solid 3 out of 5.