It’s hard for me to imagine now that the tales of Leonidas and Xerxes and Spartan warriors are old hat. I remember when Zack Snyder’s 2006 film 300 was something that no one knew bubkiss about. That changed when it slaughtered the box office through strong word of mouth, making it one of the highest grossing R rated films ever made. Since then, Lena Headey is a household name, Michael Fassbender is an Oscar nominee, and Gerard Butler has gone on to star in every type of failed romantic comedy ever conceived. (Being catapulted, whether that be into the air or stardom, isn’t an exact science.) The brave 300 became a pop culture staple, which I often gauge by a character’s appearance in one of those horrid spoof movies. So, I was skeptical when I heard that a sequel graphic novel was being created by the “not so sane anymore” Frank Miller and being turned into a film. Why tread on old, and in my opinion, already poetically ended ground? After some coaxing from, again, strong word of mouth, I put my apprehension aside and gave it a chance. I am happy and very surprised to say that 300: Rise Of An Empire not only holds its own with the original 300, but supercedes it in some facets. It is an OVERACHIEVING underdog that acknowledges and builds off of its roots.
What’s it about? Well, here is probably the most interesting and well done thing about this film. 300: Rise Of An Empire fills in the gaps left behind by its predecessor 300. As much as I love 300, the film skirts past a lot of chances to build up depth in the world it inhabits. Hell, without Lena Headey’s brief storyline as Queen Gorgo, the film is practically a gloriously action packed montage of sex and violence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Rise Of An Empire tries to do something done sneakily by Bourne Ultimatum, done brashly by Bourne Legacy, and done incomprehensibly by X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It weaves its story around the events before, during and after the original. The creation and rise of Xerxes, the Persian campaign taking place away from the Hot Gates, the steps taken to unite all of Greece. All of these things done to not only strengthen the original 300 as a film, but elevate Rise Of An Empire as its own sturdy branch of a grand story. So, this film is not a sequel. It is a sidequel with an actual purpose.
Now don’t think that because I said this story fills in gaps that it is boring. NOTHING could be further from the truth. I haven’t fully quantified this, but I dare say that Rise Of An Empire has more swords, and blood, and death, and sex and destruction than 300. The most famous shot in the original 300, my favorite shot in the original 300, is the “Crazyhorse” shot of Leonidas. The one where he practically rips through the Persian front line single handed like a damn superhero. Rise Of An Empire has two of these scenes just as epic, and one using AN ACTUAL HORSE! Director Noam Murro, who had only worked on the indie film Smart People before this, really does a terrific job with these action scenes. Though, this may be praise that deserves to fall on the head of the visual effects department or cinematographer. Either way, rest easy if you think that Rise Of An Empire might play it safe. It surely does not.
When it comes to performances in films like this, 300, Sin City, Dredd and the like, it isn’t really about being a great actor. Though it doesn’t hurt. It’s really about an actor or actress trying to be bold, to be memorable, to stand out. It is very easy to disappear in a film focused mainly on style. Gerard Butler and Headey and Fassbender and Dominic West, and Rodrigo Santoro knew how to play into the genre. They used the somewhat campy material to their advantage instead of being overwhelmed by it. The returning players to Rise Of An Empire have not forgotten to do this. Headey, Santoro and even David Wenham are just as entertaining in this as they were before. The new players, unfortunately, don’t manage to completely accomplish my theory of standing out. Sullivan Stapleton handles his action scenes well, but he just never gripped me as someone I should follow. The speeches and screams of inspiration that felt so genuine and right coming out of Butler’s mouth, feel somewhat hollow coming out of his. A similar father and son storyline is used in Rise Of An Empire that I really began to enjoy. However, it didn’t get enough meat to it as I would have liked. The one exception to the newcomer performances comes from the always amazing Eva Green.
Now, I’m not gonna pretend that I don’t already adore Eva Green. I’m not gonna pretend that I haven’t already declared her my favorite Bond Girl. But trust me, it is not my biased exaggeration that this film BELONGS TO HER. Her performance as Artemisia is easily the strongest performance in this film and the one everyone will talk about. I think Green was born to play strong women. Watching her, you can easily see her complete and utter fearlessness as an actor in every glare, and smirk, and bare naked fight/sex scene she has. (Yeah. That happens.) She completely embodies this character and makes even Xerxes’ ambition seem tame in comparison to her’s. Green’s work as Morgan on the short-lived Starz series Camelot is comparable here, but Artemisia is Morgan turned up to 11. Green is gonna absolutely own as Ava Lord in the other Frank Miller adaptation this year, A Dame To Kill For.
300: Rise Of An Empire fulfills its job as an enjoyable companion piece to Zack Snyder’s Spartan epic. Whenever it tries to be different than its predecessor, it surprisingly thrives. Don’t just be a witness…board the boats…paint your face in a remarkably similar Frank Castle Punisher pattern…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.