300: Rise of an Empire: ***/*****, or 6/10
The visually unusual action-on-steroid flick 300 proved to be quite the unexpected box office success back in 2006. It took a while before the army of pixel pushing programmers got reassembled for a second chance at glory, which many blamed on Frank Miller, the writer/artist of the original graphic novel of the same name. Considering Miller isn't even done publishing his follow-up Xerxes yet and the current sequel 300: Rise of an Empire hardly follows that particular story, such critique is quite unfounded. This second installment could have been shot years ago, and it would probably have been for the better, since the distinguished visual style that characterizes both this movie and its predecessor has been copied almost as often as the signature quote 'This is Sparta!' has since been enthusiastically and overly loudly uttered in fanboy circles. But what becomes quite clear early on upon watching Rise of an Empire, is that 'this' is not Sparta anymore.
Rise of an Empire, from a narrative viewpoint, serves as both a prequel and a sequel to 300, and even has some of the newly depicted events take place simultaneously with its illustrious forebear. The result is a rather uncomfortable mix of separate story elements all cramped together in one movie that feels the need to both explain the motives behind the ruthless conquest of the antagonist, the Persian king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), and explore the political intrigue between the various Greek city-states that must unite against him to keep Greece Greek. The movie flashes back to Xerxes' past as easily as it does to the outcome of the battle of Thermopylae, which makes for an overall chaotic feel that was lacking in the original 300, whose narrative structure proved less distracting and more coherent. The movie starts with the history of how Xerxes became king of Persia after the death of his father at the hands of the Athenian Themistokles, and his rise to power afterwards guided by delusions of divinity. A supernatural element provided by some fluorescent pool in a cave which supposedly made him a god is all too easily discarded by the spectator from its inception, as he/she has already seen the scar Leonidas gave him in the previous film, which effectively stripped him of his godlike status. And as soon as the movie is done demystifying the giant despot, who we find out basically grew from a whimpy princeling's grief over his father, the title of the film makes progressively little sense, as we're only ten minutes into the movie. It took that long for the titular 'empire' to 'rise', now the remaining 90 minutes will be spend on bringing about its decline.
More poignant to the title's failure is the fact Xerxes is merely a supporting character to the overall story, as the movie is based around the personal battle between Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) and his Persian counterpart, Artemisia (Eva Green), the vengeful admiral of Xerxes' navy. Artemisia is a sly, seductive and manipulative woman who pressured her king into going to war with Greece, despite the advice of his dying father against participating in such a costly, doomed exercise. As a horribly abused former child slave of Greek descent, she has some personal issues with the Greeks to conclude, which brings her head-on with the Athenian statesman. Green portrays this strong woman with visible delight and ensures the enemy's side is not devoid of the necessary charisma, which would have played well off Gerard Butler's equally commanding Leonidas. Unfortunately, she has to make do with Stapleton's rather bland Themistokles instead, who proves to lack the gravitas one would expect from such a renowned politician. Equipped with largely the same ideological motivations as Leonidas, Themistokles keeps droning on about the magnificence of Greek freedom as opposed to Persian tyranny, which he deems so grand and noble it's worth risking every soldier's life to uphold it. Problem is, because of Artemisia's distressing background of pain and suffering such lines are somewhat rendered moot, as we know the limits of Greek freedom, while Leonidas at least did a much catchier job at delivering them and inspiring his troops to kick Persian ass. We'd be inclined to pick Artemisia's side, were it not for her routine of viciously despatching her bumbling commanders in disturbing ways.
300: Rise of an Empire proves to be a telling case of 'girl power' over the political machinations of the men who assume command. The film reintroduces the character of Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who also serves as the film's narrator. It's not the endless quasi-poetic lines the script supplies her, it's her ability to stand up to Themistokles and voice her displeasure with his approach to fight “his” war, coupled with her own desire to right the wrong that was done to her and Sparta, that make her more compelling to watch and listen to than her Athenian rival. Gorgo proves at least as tough a female presence as Artemisia and the two are almost kindred spirits if they hadn't been fighting on opposing sides. Unfortunately they do not grace the screen together but are both limited to interacting with the boring Themistokles. A showdown between both female characters would have been preferable, but sadly we are denied. Too bad, it's not like these movies care the least bit for historical accuracy.
Though narratively and emotionally this semi-sequel turns out to be a mixed bag, it's the action and visual flair characteristic of the established 300 style that should make the film. In that regard the movie leaves little room for disappointment. However, because of 300's then-originality and the numerous copycats that followed it, there's little novelty to discern here. If you expected excessively muscled men beating their adversaries in all manner of gruesome, bloody ways, usually shown in extreme slow-motion shots against obviously digital backdrops, that's what you'll receive. Athenian muscles are not as outrageous as their Spartan counterparts, which is probably a good thing as it ought to cause less physical insecurity amongst the audience's male demographic (though the same may not be said of Artemisia's ample bosom dimensions for female viewers). Since most of the movie revolves around the naval battles between the Greek and Persian fleets, the movie differs in tone with its predecessor mostly in that regard, trading in the earthy red colour pattern for a blue maritime quality. The bombastic hardrock style soundtrack remains to great effect though. Epic shots of ships ramming into each other and the various tactics applied by both naval commanders to do as much damage as possible serve the majority of the film's action sequences, but it cannot be helped that these start to feel tedious as the movie progresses. Battles on boats simply do not provide the same opportunity for colourful combat diversity as land battles do due to their limiting nature. Don't expect to see any monstrous men, elephants or rhinos fighting in Artemisia's war. The script apparently acknowledged this lack of fantasy by adding a strange dream sequence in which a drowning Themistokles envisions giant marine reptiles picking off his men as they lie dying in the water. As any expensive blockbuster sequel of today, this movie is billed a 3D-experience, but little effective use is made of that technology. There's the occasional arrow or spear in your face, but otherwise the film offers little remarkable in this regard.
300: Rise of an Empire is a fairly decent follow-up to its predecessor that proves largely devoid of surprise or inspiration and arrives a little late to the battlefield, but does what people expect it to do. It packs quite a punch in the female acting department, but its male stars and their motives are simply not as interesting to keep your attention from drifting on the waves of its maritime action scenes. Though it serves its obligatory bit of gory battle scenes, it stylistically can't stand up to its predecessor and feels like little more than a compendium piece in terms of story. It will definitely not rank as high on a popcultural level, absent absurdly cocky but highly quotable lines that proved 300's trademark and are sorely missed here. Truth is, Athenians are just a lot less fun to go to battle with than those delightfully over-the-top-and-then-some Spartans with their constant flow of witty reprisal.