Though director Zach Snyder may not be returning for director duties of 300: Rise of an Empire, fans of the first film should certainly be sated by the similar Frank Miller inspired spirit of the predecessor, helmed by relative newcomer Noam Murro (this is his sophomore film feature, which the first film also happened to be in Snyder’s filmography). This time around, we’re in the concurrent time frame of when the initial film is set, witnessing a brooding back story that boils into revenge driven violence both before, during, and after King Leonidas guides his fateful Spartans into the Hot Gates, where all does not end well (and Butler fans get to catch a glimpse or two of him in flashback). But what this latest chapter has that its predecessor does not is twin flames of ruthless vengeance from opposing female warriors, both afforded a striking presence. And at its cold, dark heart, the film features an excellent performance from Eva Green, a raccoon eyed, vicious killer, whose villainous wiles usurp even the defensive position of her righteous protagonists.
While we’re all aware of the outcome of Leonidas’ march against the encroaching Persians, ruler Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) continues on with his rampage, his sights now set on conquering Athens. We get a little backstory into Xerxes’ beef with the Greeks, which goes back a decade to when his father was assassinated by Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). While in mourning, Xerxes was advised by viper tongued warrior Artemisia (Green) to seek vengeance on the Greeks, and we learn how the God King came to be in his current form. We also learn the backstory of Artemisia, born a Greek, but a terrible experience drove her into the arms of the enemy, of which she stands as the penultimate commander, in charge of Persia’s considerable fleet. While Leonidas plans to visit the Hot Gates, Themistocles visits his wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) for Sparta’s naval assistance, to which the hot-headed queen declines. Sparta wants no part of the united Greece that Themostocles and the other Greek States’ leaders share; Sparta is land and region set unto itself. But as Leonidas falls and the vicious Artemisia hovers imminently over the defeat of the small Athenian fleet, the tides of war are due to change.
Just as Snyder’s film was a gloriously adult, R rated adaptation of Miller’s work, Murro treads the same waters, and you’ll be sated with flexing abdominal muscles and 3D clots of blood, of which the film seems mainly comprised. Again, we’re caught between rhythms of carnage fueled action sequences after a belabored opening of considerable omniscient (but, admittedly, necessary) narration from Heady.
For the most part, we’re in the same time period of the first film, but we get a hell of a lot more backstory, as well as snippets of character development absent from the first. While Sullivan Stapleton, (who audiences might recognize for roles in Animal Kingdom or Gangster Squad) is hardly the presence that Butler was for the first installment, it’s hard to imagine any male performer that could possibly match Eva Green, a performer of excitingly varied roles since her introduction in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. She’s so venomously good here, you’ll wish she had special powers. So ruthlessly does she command our attention that her motivation for defeating the Greek’s seems not only understandable but (almost) laudable.
An uncomfortable sex scene between Artemisia and Themistocles should have tongues wagging, and a memorable physical altercation in the finale is one of the film’s highlights (though audiences clapping whenever Artemisia seems to be receiving any kind of comeuppance feels strangely misogynistic—she’s a sympathetic character who has been warped by the awful deeds of man, surely deserving of retribution, if any indeed are. The need to see her punished speaks to the strange discomfort many seem to have seeing women outgun their male counterparts).
Lena Headey gets a little bit more screen time in this revolution, but Gorgo is never quite as compelling as other characters, even if she gets to act out a bit more here. And while 3D gives the film a more urgent sense of overkill, 300: Rise of an Empire, while not a superb film, is an entertaining mix of action and lively special effects, and depending on your tastes, should at least equal (and even enhance) the experience of 300.
★★ 1/2 / ☆☆☆☆☆