After its victory over Leonidas’ 300, the Persian Army under the command of Xerxes marches towards the major Greek city-states. The Democratic city of Athens, first on the path of Xerxes’ army, bases its strength on its fleet, led by admiral Themistocles. Themistocles is forced to an unwilling alliance with the traditional rival of Athens, oligarchic Sparta whose might lies with its superior infantry troops. But Xerxes still reigns supreme in numbers over sea and land.
Review 300: Rise of an Empire
Review 300: Rise of an Empire
As King Leonidas (a briefly glimpsed but frustratingly absent Gerard Butler) defies the leaders of Sparta and wages war with invading God-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the politicians of Athens choose a different course of action, sending a large fleet of ships to engage the still-overwhelming forces of the Persian navy. Athens entrusts its fleet to its greatest warrior, Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who years earlier killed Xerxes’ father, King Darius I (Yigal Naor). Xerxes, in turn, tasks his finest commander and sole confidant, the manipulative and vengeful Artemisia (Eva Green), with destroying the Athenian navy. Like Leonidas, Themistokles must rely on skill and strategy to combat the enormous size and strength of his enemy. Unlike Leonidas, though, martyrdom will not forge a road to victory. It will take all he has to defeat Artemisia, all he is to overcome such insurmountable odds, and eventually all he can muster to convince Sparta and grieving widow Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) to aid Athens in their most dire hour of need.
It would be easier to label Rise of an Empire an imitation if Snyder weren’t so directly involved with the production. All the same, Murro isn’t as confident or accomplished a filmmaker and struggles to evoke Snyder’s patented style while realizing a vision all his own. The result is decidedly similar yet decidedly different. Whereas Snyder clung to comic artist Frank Miller’s illustrations and composition to stunning ends, Murro paints with wider swaths of CG on a much glossier canvas. The results are still striking, just not quite so hypnotic or impressive. Green-screening is much more obvious. FX seams more apparent. Armies more akin to animated action figures. And sword fights and battle scenes less impactful and convincing. Add to that Murro’s shakier grasp on slow motion, his relative weakness in comic-panel framing, and some trouble he encounters when staging climactic action beats and you have a film that looks the part by and large but doesn’t feel quite right. By the time Themistokles mounts a horse hidden in the belly of his boat and begins galloping from one sinking Persian ship to the next, swinging his sword and thrusting devastating kicks at dazed onlookers, any sense of artful grace has drained away. His subsequent clash and standoff with Artemisia is even sillier, failing to earn the payoff it so eagerly expects to collect.
The script suffers too, first and foremost from the prevailing pretentiousness of the narration, but more subtly from its foundations. Historically, Athens and Sparta represented two diametrically oppositional philosophies. Athens was a city-state of the arts and sciences; Sparta of war. 300 exuded all things Sparta. Rise of an Empire touches on this underlying conflict but tends to reduce it to a second-tier theme at best, and an inconsistent one at that. Themistokles and his men may as well be the Spartans at the end of the day (with Artemisia standing in for Xerxes), and much of the same-iness of the sequel is rooted in this mirroring. Rather than provide a more reluctant warrior who rises to greatness through varying means, we get Leonidas Part Deux. (Side note: the real Themistokles didn’t kill a king and, later, lived out his days as an exile of Greece and a Persian governor.) Rather than continually explore the dramatic divide between Athens and Sparta, it’s dealt with superficially. Not organically either, but as the screenplay dictates. How problematic does it get? The film’s third act hinges on Themistokles, an Athenian, attempting to convince Gorgo, a Spartan, to go to war. And though that may strike some as a small nitpick, it’s indicative of the from-the-hip shotgunning in which Snyder and co-writer Kurt Johnstad indulge; a carelessness that drives some of the more questionable decisions made by the characters. (Chief among them the “negotiations” between Themistokles and Artemisia, which, even if interpreted as a game of manipulation, is about as laughable as it is nonsensical. If not immediately then hopefully upon closer examination.)
Did I hate Rise of an Empire? Surprise! Not at all. It isn’t the full-fledged sequel it could have been, or even very satisfying on its own terms, but it has the makings of a great film and, I gotta say, I enjoyed a good chunk of it. Strike Back’s Stapleton is a magnetic lead who brings far more to the table than the script provides, drawing upon his innate grit and gristle to deliver a hero worthy of the 300-verse. Green, meanwhile, is a sexy, slinky femme fatale from start to finish, chomping down on the entire film and gnawing through action sequences with the fierceness and ferocity of a true warrior princess. Santoro is excellent, especially in the pre-god Xerxes flashbacks, and Headey, though a bit out of her element when charging into battle, lends emotional weight and gravitas to an otherwise glorified cameo. The high seas action is a blast too, at least once you give up the hope that it will ever amount to anything more than an exercise in let’s top ourselves again! blood-letting. The ship combat is reasonably thrilling (above all, the first two naval skirmishes), the swordplay is fairly exciting, and the callbacks to the first film are, every now and then, pretty clever. 300 is still the smarter, savvier, more visually stirring comicbook actioner, but I suspect Rise of an Empire is better suited to mass audience consumption. So grab some popcorn, switch off the ol’ brain-pan and watch sword pierce flesh, metal splinter wood, and ancient Persian might dash itself on the rocks of Athenian and Spartan will.