300: Rise of an Empire

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Release: Friday, March 7, 2014

[Theater]

Two things you must be comfortable with in order to properly enjoy the latest Frank Miller graphic novel adaptation: a whole lot of crimson red and a whole lot of Eva Green. If you’re at least cool with the second, then there’s hope for you still as you stand in line waiting to buy a ticket to 300: Rise of an Empire.

It goes without saying that you’ve seen the original, so if consistency is what you seek in your 2014 experience, you’ll be left mostly satisfied. Rise of an Empire shares in the original’s gleeful bloodletting and it rejoices in the opportunity to strip 21st Century male models down to their undies and to empower them with gigantic swords and shields made from some material appropriately manly. . .like, cast iron. Or something. They all then get into a consistent (and pretty manly) fight that ends up constituting half of the runtime. While all of this is going on your I.Q. is taking a pretty consistent beating in the process. On these fronts, the new film delivers.

Rather than taking the risk of telling a story completely removed and distinct from that of the film that preceded it, Rise of an Empire benefits from simply increasing the size of the stage. This strategy is not exactly ground-breaking, but it’s a tactic that helps the sequel provide the fun it ought to. Clearly, with the extensive amount of time spent on slow-motion dramatizations of killing blows and the like, there was barely material enough to warrant a second, full-length feature film. Not to mention, at least half of this one is spent doing battle rather than using time to explain things — with hindsight this was another good decision.

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We rely on Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) in the opening scene to fill us in on certain details that will not only give the upcoming story context but also help make a few things clearer about what happened years prior to the events of 300. Following the murder of King Darius I of Persia by General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), a true evil was born when Darius’ son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), filled with a rage only emo kids can identify with, dunked himself in a bath of what appeared to be liquefied gold and transformed himself into a powerful and terrifying god-king. The narration continues: in the ensuing years, Xerxes made it his top priority to tear Greece apart with brute force, using vengeance as his guiding spirit, and confidence that no one can challenge his authority as his motivation to continue.

Now Greece’s last fighting chance lies within Themistokles and his decision-making. He believes their best chance of surviving a massive attack from the Persians would be to unite as one, and he turns to Sparta and to Gorgo for support. Unfortunately he has just missed Leonidas as he has led 300 of his men out of the area, and Gorgo is reluctant to side with the Greeks. Themistokles, ever determined to mount a defensive against the incoming Persians, does manage to gather a fleet of ships and leads the charge out into the Aegean Sea, where they are to confront a massive Navy commanded by the vengeful and bloodthirsty Artemisia (Green).

While tipping its hat to the original, the saga branches out and onto open waters in a particularly brutal and extended action sequence. Themistokles and several thousand Greek craftsmen-turned-warriors put their lives on the line in a gloriously bloody and cartoonishly stylized battle that rivals anything seen in 300. Every so often there are a few more nuggets of information that connect the original to this “sequel,” though the majority of what happens beyond the halfway mark can be categorized as glorified stunt work and crimson red CGI.

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The threat of Artemisia is almost without question the strength of this overstylized bloodbath. And why shouldn’t it be? Green clearly relishes the opportunity to play evil. A good portion of the film proves she can be convincingly psychotic; sometimes her lines are excruciatingly cliché, but never does she come across disingenuous or disinterested in what kind of role she’s playing here. The same cannot be said for Stapleton’s Themistokles, and while he’s been given rather large shoes to fill by essentially becoming this year’s Leonidas, this is an actor who can’t win affections nearly as quickly. He’s no meat-headed brute, but he’s not exactly an inspiration, either. Unfortunately he’s at the center of the film’s attention and the lack of star power is to blame for a lot of the film’s lack of impact.

No one will ever consider the writing of 300 award-winning, but by comparison Rise of an Empire is even less memorable. There isn’t the same kind of martyrdom that made the blood spillage in 300 seem like such a noble sacrifice and ultimately worth the time spent watching such violence. Themistokles and his brave men are merely shadowing the fates of Gerard Butler and his outnumbered ranks and its a fact you simply cannot get over as the story trends to the more and more predictable with each stabbing of the spear to a chest. As well, Xerxes comes across as more and more laughable with each scene he appears in. He’s supposed to be the top dog, yet he hides behind the black veil of Artemisia as she goes on a murdering spree unmatched by many a full-grown Greek warrior. He also has some of the worst dialogue in the entire movie and the scenes in which he continues to plot his terror are completely wasted moments.

All the same, the decrease in quality should have been anticipated. Standards need not be very high. If blood and chaos is what one wants, blood and chaos is what one gets, although the word ‘chaos’ can apply to the product in general. Whereas Snyder’s direction gave purpose to the deaths of so many (including that of Gerard Butler’s most identifiable role), Noam Murro’s direction is numbingly violent and consists MANly of repetition and cliché Hollywood effects. It’s good to have some fun with history, but this one tries just a little bit too hard.

This marks the first of the ten I have been able to tick off of my Epics of 2014 Ten Taste Tests list, which you should totally check out to see how it fared in the end. 

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Recommendation: Though it comes in an obvious second to its predecessor, 300: Rise of an Empire sports some bloody good fun via action sequences and epic set pieces. Visually, it’s stunning and there isn’t a great deal to complain about if you are requiring a film that asks absolutely nothing of its audience. . . well, you know, apart from remembering how important it is to work out on a daily basis.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “It begins as a whisper. . .a promise. . .the lightest of breezes dances above the death cries of 300 men. That breeze became a wind, a wind that my brothers have sacrificed. A wind of freedom. . .a wind of justice. . .a wind of vengeance.”