300: Rise of an Empire Review
'Dumb fun' broadly describes 300: Rise of an Empire, and boy, it doesn’t get much dumber than this. Following closely in the footsteps of its predecessor, this belated follow-up tries to be prequel, sequel and sidequel by embellishing and expanding upon the original story, and on its own limited terms it just about succeeds. But what felt bracingly different in 2007 now feels a bit tired and silly; the heavily stylised look wears thin after a while, and the scrappy story feels like its been sellotaped together from offcuts and leftovers. Only Eva Green’s lively performance stands out from the onslaught of bloody special effects.
If you can’t quite remember how 300 ended, here’s a hint: all 300 Spartans died (except for David Wenham’s warrior, sent home early after misplacing an eyeball) defending their city from a massive Persian invasion led by self-proclaimed god-king Xerxes. So no encore from Gerard Butler as Leonidas. Lena Headey is back as Leonidas’ wife Gorgo, still Queen of Sparta, and so is Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes whose origins are revealed, but the focus moves away from Sparta to Athens, where some time earlier Athenian general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) defeated Xerxes’ father King Darius at Marathon, setting in motion events that would lead to Leonidas and his 300 Spartans making their last stand. While that battle is in full swing, Themistokles tries to rally his fellow Greeks, including Sparta, in an effort to fend off a Persian naval attack led by Artemisia (Eva Green), who as a young Greek girl was sold in to slavery but rose to prominence in Darius’ court as a gifted warrior and tactician. She and Xerxes both have scores to settle with Greece.
Zack Snyder’s 300 was a divisive film: critics gave it a lukewarm reception, but the director at least won points for his stylistically daring attempt to faithfully recreate Frank Miller’s comic book series on screen. The heavy use of green screen technology and slow motion to accentuate the visceral and extremely bloody violence alienated as many people as it dazzled. The characters may have been crude sketches, but that was the point: it was impressionism for the CGI age, a story whose actions and setting spoke louder than anything else. Rise of an Empire fails to make the same impact. Although Snyder returns here as writer and producer, Noam Murro sits in the director’s chair and the handover is pretty seamless. Blood still flies across the screen, limbs still fly through the air, everything still takes place at magic hour or under an impossibly large moon. The two films feel organically connected.
But that’s also part of the problem - it is too beholden to the first film to fully satisfy on its own. Structurally the film is a mess. After every battle or action set-piece, another reference to 300 is shoehorned in so that we don’t forget how the original film was only one party of the bigger picture being presented here. The result is a plot that seems to continually start and stop. Then there is the cast. Eva Green is certainly on majestically lethal form as Artemisia, a sort of Lady Macbeth to Prince Xerxes, goading him in to invading Greece. If only more time had been spent on their peculiar relationship instead of Stapleton’s boringly wooden Themistokles; the actor lacks Butler’s conviction when either rallying his troops or spitting out insults, and generally seems out his depth doing anything other than waving around his sword.
Any genuine suspense quickly dissipates in the face of the deafening violence, which is dialled up to 11 from the word Go. Towards the end the increasingly absurd action becomes a dull game of tit-for-tat, as anonymous Athenian troops slice and dice anonymous Persian troops, then the Persians do the same to the Athenians, until eventually any interest you might have had in the outcome simply crumbles into indifferent dust. A certain camp pleasure could be found in the fruity dialogue and costumes if you were to look for it, but it’s not enough to make this sequel anything more than a mediocre potboiler.