There was something special about 2006's 300, a film that really didn't hold up to my critical brain but a film that did hold up to that part of me that likes to sit down in a movie theater and escape into another world.
300 was flawed but fun, a special effects-laden bloodletting with exciting performances by the quartet of Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender, David Wenham, and Lena Headey that truly captured the spirit and the darkness and the mythical magnitude of the Frank Miller graphic novel upon which it was based. It seems weird to think about the fact that it has been eight years since that first film, but such is the case and both Butler and Fassbender are long gone.
The timing of 300: Rise of an Empire is a bit of a not particularly effective novelty with part of the film taking place as a sort of prequel, part of the film running along the same timeline in a different location, and the majority of the film coming not that far after the first film ended. King Leonidas is dead and a new hero for Greece arises in the person of Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), whose semi-legend status has been built upon the fact that he is credited for killing King Darius (Igal Naor). With King Darius dead, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is able to ascend to the throne with much agenda-driven encouragement by former King Darius's chief military tactician, Artemisia (Eva Green).
300: Rise of an Empire exists almost solely for us to behold the repeated battles between the Persians headed by Xerxes and Artemisia and the Greeks, led by Themistokles and his not so merry band of outmanned and out-equipped warriors. Themistokles hopes to convince the Spartans, led by their surviving Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), to unite with the rest of Greece in the ultimate battle against Persia but having already lost her beloved husband and 300 warriors she's not particularly enthused by the idea of continued martyrdom.
The film is highlighted by Eva Green, one of the few main actors in the film to truly grasp the idea of acting in film based upon a graphic novel. Animated but never cartoonish, Green's Artemisia is fierce and psychotic and downright sexy, the latter especially coming during an attempt at seducing Themistokles to the dark side.
But, apparently he fights better than he fucks.
In this case, Themistokles also fights better than Sullivan Stapleton acts. If you've gone for a rental car expecting a Mercedes and ending up with an AMC Pacer, then you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the actor whose main objective is to make us somehow forget about Gerard Butler, himself not a particularly brilliant actor but definitely an actor with a strong and, um, penetrating presence. Unfortunately for all involved, Butler really wasn't interested in another go around as Leonidas.
If you remember the original 300, much of the production design here elicits a similar but more restrained response. D.P. Simon Duggan's lensing actually serves up a greater degree of clarity than the original film but that same two-toned artistic design makes the abundance of stabbings, beheadings, limb losses and more seem downright tame. There was an extra something in the first film, a brashness and a boldness that is largely missing here. It could very likely be the fault of Noam Murro, whose only other film was the underwhelming Smart People, and who seemingly lacks Zack Snyder's true sense of both the period and how to direct a graphic novel for the big screen. Murro's direction is functionally fine, but desperately missing a needed spark.
Kudos to co-writers Snyder and Kurt Johnstad for crafting a story that makes both the bad guys and the good guys equally compelling, with Artemisia's back story giving her actions an emotional resonance even if you can't quite find yourself rooting for her.
300: Rise of an Empire is an unnecessary follow-up to a film that was more of a guilty pleasure than anything. This time around, there's a little more guilt and a lot less pleasure but thanks to Eva Green's energetic and inspired performance there should still be more than enough in the film to please fans who've actually been waiting around for the film and for those simply seeking a mindless action flick to catch this weekend.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic