by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
300: Rise of an Empire is, for the most part, set concurrently to the events depicted in Zack Snyder's audacious, hugely successful (and somewhat influential) adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel 300. Instead of focusing on one key event, however, this movie, also based on a Miller graphic novel (Xerxes) opens up the world and attempts to showcase all of the intricate political wheeling and dealing taking place when the Persian self-proclaimed 'God-King,' Xerxes, invaded Greece intent on total domination.
Not that battles of an epic scale are still not front and center. At the core of this drama is General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), a cunning warrior known for his inspired battle tactics who believes only a united Greece will be able to stand up to Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his overwhelming hordes. He is charged with holding off the God-King's massive naval fleet led by the beautiful, bloodthirsty Artemisia (Eva Green), Xerxes' second-in-command and his most trusted, and most duplicitous, confidant.
Themistokles' hope is that he can hold out long enough for Spartan King Leonidas and his 300 warriors to make their heroic, if tragic, stand at the Hot Gates, knowing their selfless, epic sacrifice should be all that's necessary to inspire the rest of Greece to mobilize under one banner and not as separate, discombobulated city-states. Only then does he believe defeating Xerxes is possible, especially with someone as vindictive, cunning and ruthless as Artemisia helping mobilize and command the Persian force.
On many levels, 300: Rise of an Empire is far more ambitious than 300 ever was. The story is broader, far more all-encompassing, Themistokles' defense of the Greek inlets, coupled with his political maneuverings to attempt to unite the country, epic in scope and grandiose in vision. Snyder, returning as both producer and co-screenwriter, once again working with fellow scribe Kurt Johnstad (Act of Valor), has massive designs for both this particular narrative as well as for the franchise as a whole. With this effort, it is obvious he is trying to up the ante - so much going on, Greek and Persian sides both - that it's understandable if the viewer feels a little lost trying to navigate what is going on and why.
And, right there, is part of the reason why this sequel isn't quite as entertaining or as giddily satisfying as the 2007 first film was. Just over 100 minutes long, the canvas is so expansive, so all-encompassing, there's just too much going on for all of it to coalesce into a completely satisfying, let alone coherent, whole. Themistokles runs around Greece as if he were driving Dr. Emmett Brown's DeLorean, going from Sparta to Athens to the country's coast and then back again with almost instantaneous ease. While there he engages in various tête-à-têtes with random figures, most notably Spartan Queen Gorgo (a returning Lena Headey, her voiceover heard throughout) - all of which have point and purpose, yet none of which are clearly defined enough to matter in concrete, palpable ways.
At the same time, even with countless subsequent features stealing some of its visual thunder (notably Tarsem Singh's Immortals, which I'd argue is a better, richer film than 300 in most respects), 300: Rise of an Empire still manages to entertain. Stapleton, most recognizable for his role as Sgt. Damien Scott on the Cable action series 'Strike Back,' is a fine, suitably masculine hero, delivering his various speeches of inspiration and valor with requisite charismatic authority. He has a primal ferocity to his movements that makes even his most tender remarks have an aura of urgent menace to them, striking chords of pathos, pain and tragedy with gruff, grizzled ease.
Then there is Eva Green. The former Casino Royale Bond babe steals the show, a carnal, serpentine depravity oozing from every pore and gracing all of her movements. She slithers and slinks through the film with strikingly violent elegance, twisting syllables and cutting off heads with equally striking gracefulness. Artemisia is a villain for the ages and Green taking charge of her without reservation or fear, allowing all sides and facets of her byzantine personality to surface with oftentimes traumatizing sincerity.
Using the building blocks left to him from Snyder, new director Noam Murro (Smart People) does a fairly solid job of attempting to make them his own; and while the use of slow motion accelerating and decelerating the action is a tad overdone, I was still captivated by much of what I was seeing all the same. The battle sequences are frequently stunning, and save for an odd, obnoxious sequence involving a horse near the end, I admit to finding the majority of the blood, carnage and swordplay suitably thrilling. 300: Rise of an Empire isn't as fresh or as eye-popping as its predecessor, no surprise there, but on the whole it still stands as a moderately successful continuation of the story begun there. In other words, I liked it and, more than that, I'm curious to see where things go from here.
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