Some films are content being a prequel, and others are happy being a sequel. But 300: Rise of an Empire is having none of that. Instead, the film begins in the first act of Zack Snyder’s original 300 and carries on past that film’s mass Spartan demise. So yes, it’s essentially The Bourne Legacy of films about Greek warfare.
Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) is a Greek general aware of Xerxes’ (Rodrigo Santoro) imminent invasion and struggling to rally the various Greek states together to present a uniform front. Sparta ignores his pleas and instead sends 300 of their bravest off to battle (and we all know how that turned out), so Themistokles is forced to make do and form the best navy he can muster. His enemy equal on the sea, Artemisia (Eva Green), leads the Persian naval forces that once again outnumber their Greek foes by a wide margin. The two master commanders go head to head (and groin to groin) to determine the fate of all of Greece.
Snyder co-wrote the script for this follow-up, again from a Frank Miller graphic novel, but he passed directing duties to Noam Murro (Smart People). While some may see that as a step down the resulting film is actually on par in most ways with its equally stylized predecessor. Whether that’s a good or bad thing will vary among viewers, but one thing is certain. If for no other reason, 300: Rise of an Empire is worth seeing for Miss Green in all her wide-eyed, soul-swallowing glory.
Greece’s troubles begin in a flashback to several years prior when Themistokles lets loose an arrow that kills King Darius in front of his son Xerxes. The young man, lost in grief and a hunger for revenge, is sent into the desert on a vision quest. He stumbles upon a mystical cave, takes a lap in an even more mystical pool, and returns a ten-foot tall god-like man-god. His hunger for vengeance fuels his invasion, but he’s far from the only one with that same drive.
Artemisia has her own tale of woe motivating her full frontal assault on the people of Greece, and it’s one that threatens (and if I’m being honest, succeeds) to overcome viewers’ support for Themistokles and his fellow soldiers. It’s one thing to have a villain be seen as cool or entertaining, but it’s a problem when their character earns more empathy than the supposed good guys. Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) is equally intent on vengeance, but in her case it’s for the recent demise of her husband, King Leonidas. Both women are incredibly strong female characters, both in the physical sense and in regard to their dialogue consisting of more than simply pining for love and the strong arms of their men. That said, the two are still saddled with central characteristics and drives fueled entirely by the acts of men.
When it comes down to it, fans and detractors of the first film will most likely feel similarly with the second. We’re again treated to a world created almost entirely within a green screen, a hyper-stylized atmosphere where time speeds up and slows down on a whim during action scenes (and in at least one case while a character is speaking). It captures the essence of its source material with visuals and scenes that could easily be transplanted to the panels of a comic book, and it looks arresting and occasionally exciting in the process. The script is a lesser creation though as it fails to build an empathetic and honorable purpose behind its protagonists, instead leaving us with flat heroes who spend far too much time staring off their ships’ bows into the distance.
Part of the problem is Stapleton’s lack of charisma in the role, itself due to some degree to the weakly written character. Laugh at Gerard Butler all you want, but the man had a powerful presence about him that helped make Leonidas a force to be reckoned with. Themistokles can’t manage even half of the man’s gravitas, especially when he’s saddled with dialogue made up of roughly 70% “rousing” speeches. It’s a shame because Stapleton is a lot of fun on his Cinemax series, Strike Back.
Luckily for him, and for us, Green is here to save the day. She’s absolutely ferocious and quickly becomes the highlight of every scene she’s in thanks to her wild energy, fantastic dialogue and delivery, and pure sexual intensity. That last bit especially comes into play during the film’s sure to be celebrated boat-set sex scene. It’s a ridiculous and ridiculously fun exchange that leads to an unexpectedly fun zinger later, and it shows that Green is game for anything. This is equally evident when we see her kissing a decapitated head with a gleeful degree of zeal.
300: Rise of an Empire is a worthy follow-up and should satiate fans’ desires for more slow-motion, CGI and breast-filled (mostly male) antics frequently punctuated with lopped limbs, severed heads, and splashes of digital grue. It’s never dull, and in a world of action retreads content to rely on little more than quips, rapid-fire cuts, and traditional shootouts that just might be more than enough. Especially when you add Eva Green into the mix.
The Upside: Eva Green; bloody action; a sense of humor; if the boat’s a rockin’…
The Downside: Scenes without Eva Green; script can’t build interest in the “good guys” and instead has us rooting for one of the villains; doesn’t feel like a complete tale
On the Side: The film was originally titled Xerxes before being changed to 300: The Battle of Artemisia. Ultimately it was re-titled again to avoid confusing audiences with unfamiliar words.