Movie Review: “300: Rise of an Empire”
Focusing on events that take place before, concurrent with, and after the events of the original 300 film, 300: Rise of an Empire works so hard to look and feel like its predecessor that it feels more like discarded scenes and plotlines from the original cobbled together into a feature, rather than a stand alone film. It has its moments, most of which featuring Eva Green in the most deliciously wicked villainess role of her career, but for the most part it simply plods along from one slow-motion laden, CGI blood-drenched battle scene to the next, with none of the first film’s exuberant, extravagant swagger.
Ten years before the Battle of Thermoplyae where King Leonidas led his 300 Spartans to glory and death at the hands of Persian God-King Xerxes’s army of men and monsters, Greece faced an earlier invasion by the Persian Empire led by Xerxes’s father, King Darius (Yigal Naor). That invasion was stopped at the Battle of Marathon, during which an Athenian soldier named Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) made his own legend by almost single-handedly turning back the vastly superior Persian force with one well-placed arrow.
Shortly after that defeat, Xerxes undergoes a magical ritual in order to transform himself into the God-King. Convinced of his newly-acquired divine invincibility, he resolves to finish the war his father started and punish the Greeks for their defiance. With an army even larger than his father’s behind him and Artemesia (Green), Persia’s most feared naval commander and someone with a serious grudge against the Greeks, at his side, the would-be tyrant demands that the Greeks submit to his will.
It falls then to Themistokles, now a respected general, to rally the Greeks into an alliance once more. Only this time an alliance might not be possible. The other city-states fear Persia is too strong, and would rather negotiate with Xerxes than send troops to help the Athenians. The Spartans and their queen, Gorgo (Lena Heady), care nothing for Themistokles or his hopes for a united Greek front, and plan to meet the Persian threat on their own. What will it take to unite these rival would-be nations against a threat no one of them can defeat alone? How many will have to die so that the rest of Greece may survive? And what will Themistokles be forced to do to protect his nation from Xerxes’s ambitions and Artemesia’s vengeance? Find out in the next season of Spartacus: Blood, Swords, and Rough Sex!
Sorry. Couldn’t resist.
With Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Watchmen) and his writing partner from the original 300, Kurt Johnstad, once again handling writing duties, Snyder producing, and much of the cast of 300 returning to reprise their roles, 300: Rise of an Empire has all the tools necessary to recreate all of the original’s grandiose and bloody spectacle … except for a compelling story at its heart. After all, while the legend of the Battle of Thermoplyae and that small number of Spartans facing 300,000 Persians and holding them back for three days has been told and retold in history and poetry since the time of the ancient Greeks, how often do you hear about the naval battles between the Greeks and the Persians that were going on at the same time? Not very.
So Snyder and director Noam Murro keep the narrative focus of the film tightly on Themistokles and Artemesia, the leaders of the two navies, and the war they wage that becomes intensely personal. The results are predictable, but they’re still fun to watch, particularly the film’s one extended sex scene, which if nothing else should provide much inspiration to fantasy cosplayers and/or audience members who prefer their intimate escapades to leave a bruise or two. Or twelve. Green and newcomer Stapleton are certainly game, and their scenes together bring some heat. If you’re not squirming in your seat even a little bit during these scenes, you may need to check yourself for a pulse.
But outside of those steamy moments, a lot of what you get in 300: Rise of an Empire is a pale imitation of the original, or what you might have gotten in any season of Starz’s Spartacus TV series from a few years back, a series that consciously aped 300's visual and storytelling style. Lots of skin. Lots of glistening, chiseled six-pack abs. Lots of bearded guys bellowing, swinging swords, and causing wounds that result in geysers of dark, computer-generated blood. And dialogue that reads more like speeches than actual discourse between people.
Oh, and LOTS of slow-motion — 300: Rise of an Empire might be a full 20-30 minutes shorter a film if not for every time the action stops or slows down to emphasize a blade cleaving through someone’s arm, torso, or head.
Credit where credit is due: this film SHOULD put Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton on the map as far as future Hollywood leading man roles, though it may not be quite a megastar-making turn that 300 was for Gerard Butler. He fills his role well, but chalk it up to his character just not being as fun to watch on screen as King Leonidas was; Themistokles’ bravery and intensity just don’t measure up to King Leonidas’s swagger and cool Scottish brogue. (Oh, come on! Admit it: a Greek from the ancient world with a Scottish accent for no good reason was cool!)
As for Green, who trained with stuntmen and physical trainers for four months before shooting began to prepare for her fight scenes and the physicality of her role, she absolutely gives her all, and she’s terrific fun to watch vamp and chew scenery when she’s not beheading or disemboweling someone. Heck, she even makes THAT enjoyable.
But their combined efforts just aren’t enough to save things here. And unfortunately, though the film’s marketing might have you believe otherwise, Lena Heady and her character of Queen Gorgo aren’t around for much of the film. It’s no exaggeration that’s she’s heard more than she’s seen in the film’s final cut, which will no doubt disappoint the many Game of Thrones fans who will give 300: Rise of an Empire a chance just because Circe Lannister is in it.
Maybe they’ll get her more involved the next time around. Oh, yes, they leave things open for a next time. Please don’t say you’re surprised.
Score: 2.5 out of 5
300: Rise of an Empire
Starring Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Heady, Hans Matheson, and Rodrigo Santoro. Directed by Noam Murro.
Running Time: 102 minutes
Rated R for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language.