Would you like to see a sequel to a film that concluded with the vast majority of its principal cast ending up, rather unquestionably, as nourishment for fowl? Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures sure think so!
The fact that there is a follow-up to “300,” the film that cemented Zack Snyder as the premiere director of hulking, bloody blockbusters born from the panels of revered comic books, reflects somewhat poorly on the state of Hollywood ingenuity. Yet another sequel thrust into the stagnant film market of mid-March, “300: Rise of an Empire” (on which Snyder only served as producer and screenwriter) retreads the action movie tropes established by the first film that are now more frequently invoked in parodies than in tributes. The dialogue is written in the same clunky faux-Greek syntax that plagued those sequences in “300” not hogged by Gerard Butler’s screams or the sploosh of blood escaping newly opened wounds and freshly severed ventricles.
The plot of “300: Rise of an Empire” exists largely as an excuse to get to the gory money-shots, yet is chronologically peculiar enough to warrant a passing examination. Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads an army of Athenians in naval battles against the god-king Xerxes’ (Rodrigo Santoro) fleet of Persian warships, commanded by Artemisia (Eva Green). There’s an abundance of exposition, both to catch the audience up on the details of Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae and to fill in the antogonists’ backstory, the fight that Themistocles and Artemisia waged parallel to the 300’s campaign against Xerxes’ forces. Only the final 20 minutes of “Rise of an Empire” take place after the events of the first film.
It is during these bits of backstory and parallel action that we realize we’ve been pleasantly hoodwinked. Initially under the impression that the movie is solely a muscly, testosterone-fueled, homoerotic, swords-and-sandals mud-wrestling epic designed to sell cheap posters to plaster the walls of the seediest fraternity houses and studio apartments, we soon realize that the beating, throbbing heart of “Rise of an Empire” actually lies within the chest of a woman. Eva Green absolutely owns and commands every second her slinky, vicious figure appears onscreen. Artemisia is the pride of Persian warfare and never gives her enemies or her comrades quarter. Beyond mere malice, Green embodies hatred and battle in its most devastating form; the femme fatale has rarely been more superbly personified and has never looked more glamorous, draped head-to-toe in 6th Century Christian Dior gowns and silks. Artemisia is more than just a one-dimensional foil for Themistocles; as played by Green, she is a physical flurry, a tidal wave of passion that is only matched in comic book cinema by the Marvel Universe’s Lady Sif.
In addition to Green’s presence, “Rise of an Empire” distinguishes itself from the original “300” in a few more subtle ways — that is, subtle by the standards of a movie made under the “300” banner. The look of Rise of an Empire is still highly saturated, but nowhere near as blown-out as that of the first movie. The action sequences are still slowed down to emphasize the cartoon mutilation, but the composition of the choreography gives a purpose to the splash-pages that the carnage creates, rather than evoking the “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”-ethos that permeated “300.” And the watershed sex scene of the film, while drastically more violent than its counterpart, possesses a level of, dare I say, characterization. These foundational improvements allow “300: Rise of an Empire”’s best elements—Eva Green and some wildly enjoyable ocean combat—to stand out in spite of the film’s overall derivativeness.
Speaking of the ocean combat: such a treat to see cinematically rendered, the movie’s naval skirmishes benefit from an excellent grasp of staging and depth in multiple planes (perhaps owed more to Moore’s Law than skilled direction, but never mind that). “300: Rise of an Empire” may not be transcendent genre fare, but settles quite comfortably into familiar B-movie grooves and is self-aware enough to know how to elicit the adulation of the genre hounds it is geared towards. Come for the bloodshed and mayhem, stay for Eva Green’s bloodlust and gorgeous wardrobe.