Director: Noam Murro
Writers: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad (screenplay), Frank Miller (graphic novel)
Stars: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro
Release date: March 7th, 2014
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 102 minutes
Best part: Eva Green.
Worst part: the stilted dialogue.
Everyday, Hollywood comes up with new and transparent labels for its big-budget efforts. Placing blockbusters into specific categories, this system is hard to keep track of. Nowadays, its difficult deciphering whether something is a reboot, remake, sequel, or prequel. To bolster the ever-pressing studio system, Hollywood has come up with a new category. The ‘interquel’, thanks to belated sequel 300: Rise of an Empire, seems like a bizarre act of desperation. Thankfully, the movie ably justifies the category’s existence. This sequel/prequel is an enjoyable, action-packed romp.
Set before, during, and after the events of controversial auteur filmmaker Zack Snyder’s 2007 surprise hit, 300: Rise of an Empire continues on with the original’s overall narrative. Despite the extensive gap between instalments, the sequel commendably connects the two. Overlooking the original’s cult classic status, 300: Rise of an Empire justifies its existence from the get go. Fortunately, despite being a step down, the sequel is a pleasant surprise. Beyond the grown-inducing trailers and premise, the final product is salvaged by its lively execution. This series, ostensibly based on infamous comic-book writer Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novels, leans pressingly on major historical events. Here, we are introduced/re-introduced to the Battle of Salamis. The movie beings with Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) telling this pressing tale to a battalion of warriors. After her re-introduction, the movie jumps back to the conquering Battle of Marathon. With the Athenian and Persian factions locked in an epic battle, Athenian General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) becomes an unstoppable force. In the first five minutes, the highly-esteemed leader eviscerates an entire Persian battalion. After killing King Darius I of Persia (Yigal Naor), Themistocles declares the battle worthless. Witnessing his father’s death, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) becomes an angry embarrassment. Scheming Persian naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) pushes him into the desert. Becoming a God-king, Xerxes’ wrath descends upon Athens. Xerxes, one of the original’s unintentionally laughable creations, is a small part of a much grander vision. Thankfully, this backstory is lightly brushed over. Serving Artemisia’s disturbing plans, this uninteresting character is simply a puppet under a puppeteer’s control.
It’s worth pointing out, highlighting this movie’s troubled production history, this sequel is based on one of Miller’s unpublished creations. Basing his efforts entirely on cinema’s overwhelming potential, Miller’s writing and artwork reek of style more so than substance. Then again, Snyder’s style is also a perfect example of style over substance. So, will this franchise continue to mimic their stylistic flourishes? Or break away from irritable ticks and overblown creations? Judging by 300: Rise of an Empire‘s sheen, their notorious styles are imbued in this franchise’s DNA. Given the reigns to the Warner Bros./DC Comics universe after Man of Steel‘s significant profit margins, Snyder clings onto writing and producing duties. Director Noam Murro, beyond his silly name, is an odd choice for this type of blockbuster. With Smart People his only other feature-length credit, Murro launches into a wildly different genre with this convoluted sequel. For the most part, he does a commendable job. Murro understands the original is still a major talking point. The original’s cognitive elements – homoerotic overtones, muscular heroes, and visceral action sequences – drive his ambitious instalment. In love with the original’s monumental events, the sequel bows before Miller and Snyder’s grand accomplishments. Unfortunately, copying 300‘s structure, this instalment relies on the audience’s profound understanding of the original. Characters, at random, act on, and react to, the Battle of Thermopylae and the 300 Spartans’ brave sacrifice. Shoddily deliberating on freedom and political prosperity, the movie’s purpose relies on epic action sequences. Taking itself too seriously, the awkward dialogue moments present themselves as needless, and mindless, filler.
“Better we show them, we choose to die on our feet, rather than live on our knees.” (Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), 300: Rise of an Empire).
Surprisingly, the movie is defined by its closing credits. Bashing Black Sabbath and 2D animation together, this brashness efficiently sums up the preceding two-hour experience. Thrusting thinly-veiled exposition and messages into each scene, 300: Rise of an Empire paints a wholly expansive, gritty, and broad picture. With white characters charging through brown enemies throughout each action sequence, relevant discussions about military forces, political power, and social indifference are under-utilised. This franchise – aped by the Hercules reboots, the Clash of the Titans series, and Immortals – still stands above the pack. In particular, the directorial flourishes and action sequences elevate this series above its meandering competition. The plot, such as it is, caters to a series of overblown set pieces. Expectedly, the talky moments come off as cut scenes. Providing button-mashing-level entertainment values, the expansive set pieces are worth the admission cost. Beyond the video-game-like structure, the movie inventively takes to the seas. Depicting naval strategies and military prowess, the visceral and impactful naval battles stand out. With ships and swords clashing repeatedly, these sea-faring sequences are packed with edge-of-your-seat moments. Despite overusing Snyder’s slo-mo/speed-up trick, 300: Rise of an Empire amps up the violence. Slicing and dicing Persian forces, CGI blood is gratuitously splattered across each frame. Deliberating on honour, love, and war, the characters are defined by glorious speeches and harsh orders. Stapleton, a fine Australian actor, lacks Gerard Butler’s overt charisma. The soft-spoken Stapleton, despite his impressive physique, is stranded in an underdeveloped role. Thankfully, Green enthusiastically elevates her mediocre material. Lending maliciousness and sympathy to her antagonistic role, Green’s spectacular range pays off. The sex/fight scene between Themistocles and Artemisia sits head-and-shoulders above everything else.
Though not up to Spartacus and Gladiator’s immense status’, the 300 series benefits from immaculate production values and rippling muscles. You can’t help but notice these near-naked warriors’ enviable physiques. The casting directors must’ve had a helluva time picking these people. However, beyond the superficiality, 300: Rise of an Empire, despite its flaws, is an exhilarating roller-coaster ride. With a smarmy villain, fun action sequences, and stellar cinematography, this sequel is much better than you’d think.
Verdict: An enjoyably outrageous sword-and-sandal flick.