Rated R for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language
Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham and Rodrigo Santoro
Written By: Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (based on the graphic novel Xerxes by Frank Miller)
Directed By: Noam Murro
The 2006 swords-and-sandals epic 300, based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller (Sin City), was a highly stylized action extravaganza most notable for its heavy use of CGI and battle scenes accentuated by slow-motion effects. Usually when a follow-up to a hit film lacks both the director and star of the original (in this case Zack Snyder and Gerard Butler), it could suggest direct-to-video territory – but 300: Rise of an Empire is actually fairly comparable to its predecessor. Part 2 is perhaps a notch less satisfying than the first film but there’s still enough inventive and exciting action sequences to make this return to Athens worthwhile. Director Noam Murro does a solid job of keeping an aesthetic and tone that’s in line with the first 300 – however, the film’s biggest secret weapon and the reason it’s better than it has any right to be is the off-the-wall performance from Eva Green.
The film is being described as a “sidequel”, as opposed to a sequel, since it takes place concurrently with the first movie but focuses on a different storyline and characters. Lena Headey and David Wenham reprise their roles from the first film, showing up now and then to give us an idea of where we’re at chronologically – describing what “scenes” have taken place among Leonidas and his 300. But instead of the Spartans, here the focus lies on the Athenians – namely Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), admiral of a naval fleet who must rally his troops to defeat the evil Persian forces set out to destroy all of Greece.
An opening prologue reveals how the mortal Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) transformed into Xerxes, the god-king, and why he has such a vengeful rage against the Greeks. But as staggering and intimidating a figure as Xerxes is (being 9 feet tall and embalmed in gold), we find out that he is merely the face of evil. The true mastermind of the Persian Army is scorned ex-Greek Artemisia (Eva Green). Although Greek blood flows through her veins – as she will tell one of her doomed victims at knifepoint – “my heart is Persian.” Artemisia has the type of tragic childhood backstory that would turn some men into superheroes, i.e. Bruce Wayne, but turns this woman into a sociopathic seductress hellbent on revenge.
The plot is fairly straightforward, it’s the Greeks vs. the Persians: Round 2 – this time at sea. Most of the action takes place on naval vessels which paves the way for some imaginative battle sequences where rival commanders Themistokles and Artemisia have to come up with ways to destroy the other’s ships. Outnumbered and overpowered, yet shrewd and resilient, the Athenians continue to prove victorious over their enemy – in keeping with the “David and Goliath” theme of the first film.
Infused with CGI blood, severed limbs and decapitated heads – the battle scenes are as violent as ever, but the gore is all so cartoonish that it doesn’t hold the brutal weight of something like Braveheart. That the violence is over-the-top and the blood artistically shed is key to the film’s enjoyment. Sure this is a depiction of “history”, but an action movie based on a comic-book should be a fun time and the filmmaker’s have ensured that it is by making the violence ferocious, but not bleak.
Though enjoyable while it lasts, the film would be all but forgettable if it weren’t for the killer performance from Eva Green who portrays one of the best screen villains in some time. Both beautiful and ruthless, at times its difficult to decide wether we should be afraid of her or enamored with her. Take for example a scene where she makes out with the decapitated head of a man she’s just killed – are we supposed to be disturbed or turned on? The filmmaker’s clearly know they have an asset on their hands with Green – she bares all in a memorable sex scene that somehow manages to be both plot driven and gratuitous at the same time.
If you were a fan of the first film, there are enough of the original ingredients packed in that you’ll probably enjoy this one as well – just keep your expectations slightly lowered. As with most sequels, this one goes bigger – but not necessarily better. 300: Rise of an Empire is efficiently diverting entertainment and with an ending that suggests yet another sequel – the nicest thing I can say is that I’m down for Round 3.