Back in 2006, audiences were blasted out of their seats by the preposterous theatricals of ‘300’, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s acclaimed graphic novel. Recounting the ancient battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. where a 300-strong army of Spartans fought against the immense Persian army of King Xerxes, the film was history as pure fantasy, big and dumb and visually spectacular, and established a style of indulgent filmmaking many have imitated but never bettered. Now the film has become a franchise with ‘300: Rise of an Empire’, expanding on the battle between the Greeks and the Persians with more blood, violence and impossibilities. But with a change of director, has the snap and pop of the original been carried over?
With the 300 Spartans slaughtered, the fate of the Greek city states lies with Themistokles (Aussie Sullivan Stapleton), an Athenian commander responsible for enraging the God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Planning to wipe out the Greeks, Xerxes hands his fleet to his most imposing warrior Artemisia (Eva Green), a ruthless killing machine and strategist. With the fate of freedom and democracy on his shoulders, Themistokles and his men must fight the approaching army and try to enlist the help of what is left of Sparta from the now-widowed Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey).
300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE - TRAILER
The visual flair of the original ‘300’ was incredibly distinctive, and established a style that Zack Snyder continued to develop in ‘Watchmen’ and ‘Sucker Punch’; that of the sudden-slow-motion action sequence. That style is the guiding principle behind this sequel, and is used both beautifully and unnecessarily. This time, director Noam Murro is at the helm, and though he has little experience with a film of this scale, he generally keeps a good hold of the reigns. The film might not have the same visual and rhythmic elegance of the first, but it moves at a cracking pace and Murro is able to conjure up some pretty stunning imagery from Frank Miller’s fantastical Ancient Greek world. The film is adapted from Miller’s book ‘Xerxes’, but rather than any significant plot or character development, the film simply moves from set piece to set piece, almost entirely at sea. They’re great fun, but they do become tedious after a while. At least the first film allowed moments of preposterous dumb storytelling amidst the blood and guts. What also adds to the tedium is the slow-motion. Whole sequences are robbed of any tension or rhythm by being almost entirely in slow motion. Sure, it looks pretty, but it gets a bit exhausting after a while and you want the film to just move along. It also doesn’t help that the Greeks just aren’t that interesting. They lack the snapping wit of the Spartans or the camp excess of the Persians, so you aren’t as invested in them. None of this seriously detracts from the dumb enjoyment of watching hundreds of burly men beating the crap out of each other with buckets of blood everywhere, but it doesn’t have the lasting impression of the first.
The film might not have the same visual and rhythmic elegance of the first, but it moves at a cracking pace.
What also works against the film is the cast. Sullivan Stapleton is about as interesting a leading man as a piece of toast, a total surprise from an actor who has previously shown such charisma. Compared to Gerard Butler, he isn’t able to carry the weight of the film, and seems completely at a loss amidst the imagination around him. His accent was also very poor, to the point where you weren’t sure whether he was keeping his Australian accent or making a poor attempt at a British one. It also doesn’t help that the men around him are more interesting, particularly Callan Mulvey as his best friend Scyllias, who could have made a much stronger lead. Jack O’Connell does pretty well as Calisto, Scyllias’ son, but he doesn’t have much to play with. The women fare much better. Eva Green is a great antagonist, over-the-top and eating as much scenery as she can. It’s a pity she and Stapleton have no chemistry whatsoever (their sex scene is one of the strangest and most confusing I’ve seen in a long time), but she can mostly overcome that. And it’s nice to see Lena Headey hitting things again after sitting for so long in pretty dresses in ‘Game of Thrones’. In the end, the acting isn’t what you came to see, but this cast doesn’t have the same cheeky charisma that made the first so memorable.
‘300: Rise of an Empire’ doesn’t pretend to be intelligent filmmaking, and that mostly works in its favour. After a thoughtful and impressive Oscars season, it’s nice to sit back and watch some big dumb fun. It might not be a scratch on the original, but it’s one of the more worthy sequels that has come out of the Hollywood machine, and leaves it open for something to follow. It’s a pity Zack Snyder wasn’t behind the helm to give the film the extra kick it needed, and it could use some plot amidst the carnage, but at the end of the day, you're probably more interested in seeing blood, sweat and flesh smashed all over the screen in an orgy of excess and spectacle. If that’s what you came for, you came to the right place.