It’s easy to see why the 2006 film, 300, created a lasting impression among audiences. It was a visual treat unlike anything at the time and the blatant balls-to-the-wall entertainment factor that the movie strives for led to people coming back to it. There are many reasons I love the film and not just for the fact that it makes for great eye candy. I love the unabashed machismo like that of an 80’s-90’s action movie, I love the unintentional (or is it?) homoeroticism that borders on Top Gun levels (that’s right-Top Gun levels!), I thought Gerard Butler made for a fantastic lead, even with his out of place Scottish accent; I also like how the look of the film is very reminiscent of paintings from ancient Greek vases. It just feels like the kind of movie that actual Spartans would make if they had the technology to do so.
Considering that 300: Rise of an Empire has come out eight years after the original film, the overabundance of films that have since used the 300 look and style similar to how The Matrix did so years before, Rise of an Empire is in a unique position. It could either serve as a return to form for a tired subgenre or result as an unimaginative and unnecessary sequel to a film that was best left alone, especially knowing that the previous film’s director Zack Snyder’s role has been reduced to a producer and co-writer with Kurt Johnstad, and Noam Murro taking the director’s chair this time around, whose only other directing effort was the 2008 indie dramedy, Smart People.
300: Rise of an Empire takes place before, during and after the first 300. It follows the Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) leading forces against those of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the Persian mortal-turned-God-king, led by the vengeful Artemisia (Eva Green). From there, guts, gore and glory are on full throttle.
There isn’t a lot I can say bad about Rise of an Empire, now that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m saying that the film is perfect by any means, but for the type of escapist, stylized, power fantasy, over-the-top action film it aims for, it miraculously manages to hit a bulls-eye. One thing that the film seems to have going against it is that the film doesn’t quite have the visual gravitas of the original. Every shot in 300 felt like it was meticulously thought out (and this is considering that the original was copying the comic panel-to-panel). Each frame felt like it mattered, whereas here the cinematography was rather standard, with only a handful of eyegasms. The effects for the background also felt a bit subpar a couple times, even for this kind of film. The music, though a good effort by Junkie XL, again doesn’t quite capture the epicness that Tyler Bates’ work for 300 had, and this is despite the fact that some of Tyler’s score being suspiciously similar to Elliot Goldenthal’s score for Titus. The 3D also doesn’t add much either, apart from a couple interesting shots, it remains mostly underutilized and tacked on. Apart from this, the new 300 mostly hits the mark.
The film manages to play it smart by shifting attention from the Spartans to the Greeks and their position in the conflict with the Persians. It gives a different perspective to the events of 300, adding some depth to an otherwise two-dimensional film. The result is less over-the-top manly than 300, but it doesn’t have to be. Even within the film, when Themistokles visits Sparta, he sees them as violent brutes. Another interesting difference is the change in color palettes, with the original being full of yellows and blacks and the new one having more greys and blues. It is small differences like this that manage to keep the film feeling like it’s a part of the same world as the first film, but still having its own identity and perspective.
One thing that I can say this film does better than 300 is that the villains have more to them this time around. We get a quick origin for Xerxes in the beginning that tells us how he went from a mere mortal to a giant God-King, and it was done rather effectively. But by far, the best part of the film, the one aspect that people will be talking about coming out of the film is Eva Green as the main antagonist, Artemisia. Not since William Fichtner in Drive Angry have I seen an actor masterfully steal the film from everyone and take it for their own, and considering that this film is meant to be a spectacle first and foremost, a job that is usually handled by the director and technical crew, with the writing/acting taking a backseat to the visuals, that says a lot. Had anyone else been in the role, the film would not nearly be as good, or at the very least, memorable. She manages to convey genuine intimidation, seductiveness, strength, manipulativeness, brutality and more, but carefully holding back just enough to prevent her performance from being hammy and completely ridiculous to the point of not being able to take it seriously. This is a star-making performance if I ever saw one. And this is not only as a character that would be any sadomasochists’ wet dream, but also as the most interesting character in the entire film and even the most interesting villain I’ve seen in a long time. There is even a sex scene with Artemisia and Themistokles that is the craziest thing I’ve witnessed in a mainstream blockbuster recently, it’s less love-making and more two enemies hate-screwing each other, and it is glorious.
I guess I should quickly mention that the other actors in the film do a fine job with their roles as well. Rodrigo Santoro slips into his role of Xerxes like 300 just wrapped a year ago, especially considering the fact that he doesn’t seemed to have aged a day since 2006. Lena Heady is great as usual. Sullivan Stapleton pulls off a very human, sympathetic and likable lead, though I can’t say he processes the same presence that Gerard Butler had. Even with seeing King Leonidas briefly (as well as his severed head), there is a part of you that misses Butler. Now there’s something I never thought I’d say. Seriously though, if you need one reason to see this movie, watch it for Eva Green.
Though the directing by Noam Murro does ultimately make the film feel like Zack Snyder-lite, he keeps the hour and forty-two minute feature going at a fantastic pace, letting you soak in all the theatricality before whisking you away to the next set piece. The writing is strong, perhaps more so than the first. We have star-making performance, with the hopes that Eva Green does more work within the action genre. 300: Rise of an Empire, like the first film, blends history and myth with pulp and style that makes for a bloody good time. If you aren’t a fan of the first film, this will do nothing to change your mind, but if you are, expect a pleasant surprise.
Side Note: In an interesting coincidence, Eva Green is also set to appear in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, the Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (writer of the graphic novels 300 and Xerxes, adapted into 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire, respectively) written and directed sequel to the fan favorite 2005 film, Sin City. Like Rise of an Empire, A Dame to Kill for is being released nine years after the first film (though it was almost eight years, since it was originally scheduled for an October 4, 2013 release, but got pushed back almost a year), so it’ll be interesting to see how two very popular films getting late sequels will do in terms of box office and how they might differ. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is set to be released August 22, 2014.