The 300 franchise returns with a fleet of Athenian ships battling the Persian army in Rise of An Empire! But does it capture the glory of the original film? 411's Jeffrey Harris checks in with his full review!
Directed By: Noam Murro Written By: Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad; Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller Runtime: 102 minutes MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language
Themistocles - Sullivan Stapleton Artemisia - Eva Green Queen Gorgo - Lena Headey Xerxes - Rodrigo Santoro Dilios - David Wenham Scyllias - Callan Mulvey Aesyklos - Hans Matheson Calisto - Jack O’Connell King Darius - Igal Naor
As much as I enjoyed the bloody good time that was 300 way back in 2007, I was extremely skeptical and cynical when talks quickly began for a sequel and an idea that the original comic creator, Frank Miller, was talking about. I grew even more skeptical once the follow-up to 300, 300: Rise of An Empire, got off the ground. The movie was delayed and at the end of it, we are now seven years removed from the first film. It seemed like all the ingredients for the recipe of an underwhelming cash-in, but fortunately, Rise of An Empire exceeded my expectations and actually turned out to be impressive.
Rise of An Empire is not a sequel in the traditional narrative sense. To be clear, the majority of the events in this film are concurrent with that of 300. The prologue, which recounts the Battle of Marathon, is set years before 300, showing Athenian general Themistocles (Stapleton) battling back the Persian army before they are able to start their invasion campaign. Themistocles puts an end to the battle after felling the Persian king Darius (Naor) with an arrow. King Darius warns his young adult son Xerxes (Santoro) to leave the Greeks alone as only the Gods can defeat them. And so Darius’ right hand, Artemisia (Green), models Xerxes into a “God King” that will topple Greece. And this is the birth of God King Xerxes in his gigantic, golden, splendiferous form who promptly declares war on the Greeks.
Themistocles does his best to rouse the rest of the Greek empire’s city-states to take up the fight against Xerxes and Persia, but they are loath to do so. He goes to Sparta to seek the aid of Queen Gorgo (Headey returning as Leonidas’ wife), while King Leonidas is seemingly away to consult the Oracle from that sequence in the first film. Gorgo denies him, since Sparta refused to unite with Athens and wants to take down Persia themselves after they insulted their honor when Peter Mensah demanded an offering of earth and water for Persia. And so with naught but a small fleet of ships, Themistocles sets about to quell Persia’s navy, which is led by Artemisia, while Leonidas and the 300 Spartans set out on their own against Persia’s land army at the Hot Gates. Themistocles is a visionary military strategist, opting to try and outsmart and outplay the Persians on the water to hold off them off from making land and burning down Athens. His hope is to delay the invading forces long enough in order to unite Greece against Persia. That is to say, if he can deal with not just the fighting prowess but also the seductive charms of Artemisia. Artemisia is Greek-born herself who was taken in by Persia after her family was butchered and raped by Greek Hoplites.
This is a surprising sophomore effort from director Noam Murro, whose only other featuring directing credit is the 2008 release Smart People. The style is similar to that of 300 director Zack Snyder (who still serves as co-writer and producer of this film), but it has its own unique fingerprints. The color palette has a much darker, bluer hue compared to the red, beige, and amber tone of 300. The action scenes give us a different flavor of this highly-stylized comic book version of history, focusing on naval warfare and combat compared to the ground warfare of 300.
The visuals are nicely edited and put together for the brutal, grisly, blood-splattering combat. One particular shot of a freaked out horse before it’s hoof lands on an enemy’s head and caused it to basically explode is particularly inspired. In this PC world, 300: Rise of An Empire is bloody, dirty, and unapologetic in its depiction of blood, sex, and violence. But with all that in mind, the combat and violence is so exaggerated and, at times, over the-top, that an informed audience should realize exactly what this story is. This is not meant to be a gritty, realistic take on history, but one realized from the words of dramatic storytellers and tall tales. Just like 300 was a tall tale of sorts of the 300 Spartans at the Hot Gates through the mind’s eye of Dilios (Wenham, who returns from the first film), so is Rise of An Empire a tall tale as well.
While Xerxes is mostly a peripheral character in this story, the main conflict focuses on the steadfast Themistocles and the vengeful Artemisia. Eva Green is fantastic here as the embittered Persian general. She seethes and matches wits with Stapleton’s Themistcoles quite well. Being a big fan of Stapleton’s work on Strike Back, I was happy to see him given the opportunity to step up on a grand stage here. Considering he’s not quite the man and leader Leonidas is, the film plays off this element rather well. Themistocles’ army was not bred for combat and to be “real men” from birth. It underscores the underdog factor of matching the Greek navy against Persia’s.
The story is not without its issues. At 102 minutes, despite being a shorter film than 300, Rise of An Empire, just doesn't feel quite as tight and economical as 300 was. Some of the exposition and setup with Themistocles’ allies and supporting cast falls a tad flat. The story seems to just have a little flab in its execution. Though to the credit of Murro and the writers, the story does underscore exposing the facade of Xerxes quite well. Just as Leonidas showed that a God King can bleed, so can Rise of An Empire show that Artemisia is the true brains, force, and architect behind Xerxes.
A lot of the other supporting cast members are pretty unmemorable and nondescript though. While I was glad to see the large amount of returning characters, as well as some surprises from 300, a lot of the men who there to prop up Themistocles just don’t really leap off the screen as the material calls for, not like in 300 which also had a young and plucky, but still charismatic, Michael Fassbender to round things out.
The other really strong element that helps to elevate the film is the rousing score composed by Junkie XL. The banging drum beats that play as the Greeks ride into battle really jazz the sequences up. It’s hard not to get excited and drawn in with all the bells and whistles on display, which makes for an overall fun experience at the movies.
The 411: 300: Rise of An Empire is not overall as good of a film as the first 300, but after going in with low expectations and a pretty skeptical attitude, the movie was surprisingly enjoyable more often than not. This works as a solid companion piece to 300, and it does leave you in a place yearning for more. But ultimately that will be up to moviegoers. 300: Rise of An Empire in all of its exaggerated, comic book style succeeds in providing a satisfactorily bloody, violent, and unapologetic good time.