You can’t kill a potential franchise … even if nearly all the heroes died in the first film.
And so the 2006 box-office success of 300, in which a small army of fierce Spartan warriors died fighting the overwhelmingly superior numbers of the invading Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae, gives birth to 300: Rise of an Empire.
Less of a sequel as it is a bookend to the first film, Rise of an Empire brings back stories to familiar characters from the original 300 and introduces two major additions to match battle tactics and swords.
The film also delves further into the Greco-Persian wars, approximately 500 years B.C., beginning with the Battle of Marathon in which Athenian general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) soundly defeats an invading Persian fleet and mortally wounds their ruler, King Darius, whose son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) later swears revenge on the Greeks and transforms himself into a hulking shirtless god-king to do it.
Fueling Xerxes’ anger is his warmongering general, Artemisia (Eva Green, best remembered as James Bond’s love interest, Vesper Lynd, in Casino Royale), who has revenge on her mind after years of enslavement and torture by her Greek captors. Historically, Artemisia was a brilliant military leader who found favor with Xerxes. Rise of an Empire also suggests she was a ruthless commander who happened to be the best warrior in the Persian army. And so Persia invades Greece: Xerxes with a massive ground army headed to Sparta — and thus The Battle of Thermopylae portrayed in 300 — and Artemisia with a huge naval fleet to crush the smaller Greek ships. It’s the latter, open sea battles, that come to dominate the film.
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The shift from an epic ground war to the intricate strategies of ship-to-ship conflict is more than a mere cosmetic change between the two films. It also transforms the choreography of battle, as the wooden vessels smash into and splinter each other before the Greek and Persian armies spill over from boat to boat to engage in sword-and-shield combat.
Co-produced and co-written by Zack Snyder, and again based on another Frank Miller graphic novel, Rise of an Empire is as gory, violent, and hyper-stylized as 300. And while Snyder opted not to return as director for the second installment, there’s comparatively little difference in his filmmaking style and that of his replacement, Noam Murro, a commercial advertising director working on his first action movie.
The 300 aesthetic is a formula of muted colors and slow-motion violence, including splattering blood, cracking bones, and dismembered body parts during the battle sequences.
While Rise of an Empire may not be surprising, it is surprisingly entertaining, particularly with its two main characters.
Directed by Noam Murro.
Screenplay by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, based on the Frank Miller graphic novel.
A Warner Brothers release, playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated R for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity, and some language.
Running time: 102 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ★★★
Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Jack O’Connell, Andrew Tiernan, David Wenham.
★★★★★ Outstanding; ★★★★ Very Good; ★★★ Good; ★★ Fair; ★ Poor
Artemisia is a formidable, memorable, and intriguing antagonist, and Green delivers the best villain in the 300 series so far. A fierce warrior and brilliant tactician himself, Themistokles is a more nuanced hero than the now-deceased King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) of Sparta. For one, Themistokles must first engage in politics and persuasion as he appeals to a divided ancient Greece to unite as one army to repel and crush the Persian incursion. This includes trips to Sparta to meet with Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) — before and after she becomes a widow — to ask for her military aid.
Butler delivered a star-making performance in 300. Stapleton has a similar screen presence, though he doesn’t have the same rousing and instantly quotable battle cries as did Butler.
“Spartans! Ready your breakfast and eat hearty, for tonight, we dine in hell!” King Leonidas tells his troops in 300. All Themistokles can manage is a spirited plea for his men to “Steady your hearts, look deep into your souls. Seize your glory!”
It’s a line that might play well with high school football players, but as a war cry to embolden troops it’s less than inspiring.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.