Review By: Bill Graham
Anytime a film becomes an unlikely smash hit, like 2007’s 300, you will see studios try to jump on board. The likely result are films like Clash of the Titans, Immortals, The Legend of Hercules, the upcoming similarly titled Hercules, the failed Conan the Barbarian reboot, Pompeii, and even shows like STARZ’s Spartacus that openly cited 300 as an influence. Most of the previously mentioned films were box office busts and none of them made the impact of 300. So it was inevitable, really, that Warner Bros. wouldn’t let the franchise ride off into the sunset without a sequel. What we have received is a mixed bag that sometimes relies too heavily on the plotting of the original creating an oddity even in the franchise-obsessed world of Hollywood: 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is a prequel / sequel all in one.
There are a few significant details to get out of the way when talking about the new 300. The first is the one mentioned previously about the fact that it is a prequel/sequel. The second is that what the film really is about is the rise of the “god King” Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and the people around him. We find out that his father, the king of the Persian Empire at the time, was killed during the Battle of Marathon by the Grecian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Not one to take kindly to the death of a beloved Persian king being killed, we see how the former-Greek-now-Persian Naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) propels Xerxes to become the great golden god we know of from the first film.
Returning for a few notable appearances is Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and even a handful of glimpses of the various warriors from the first film like Leonidas. However, if you’re hoping for something more than just appearances of the warriors you’re out of luck. This film rests squarely on the shoulders of the two newcomers in this story, Stapleton and Green who are continually facing off. In Green I found a wonderful character that was brought to life. Artemisia smolders on screen, her temper and cunning always working under the surface. The opening battle shows just how well Stapleton and director Noam Murro have a handle on what is clearly the draw yet again: stylized hyper-violent close-quarters combat. If that’s all you truly care about, you will be endlessly pleased. Even the slow-motion sequences feel nearly directly continued from Zack Snyder’s original film. In fact, I might even say that some of the sequences in this film surpass the original, which is no small feat. But let me also step back a bit and say that while the entirety of 300 occurred on land, there is a significant amount of naval battles in this newest addition. That tinges everything with a blue hue instead of the rustic reds and browns.
While Green does a remarkable job of holding your attention, the film lacks some of the charm of the original. But the real downfall is that there is simply too much action. Yes, that’s what you likely came to see. And it is wonderful to witness, particularly the naval skirmishes with loads of ramming and interesting maneuvers more likely to be seen out of speedboat destruction derby than rowboat warships. Yet it becomes monotonous. While the original film took its time to setup some iconic battles that felt like a release valve, Rise of An Empire continually throws the Persians and Greeks into battle. Zack Snyder’s original was clocked at 117 minutes, and Rise manages to become unwieldy during its 102 minute running time. Music by Tom Holkenborg, otherwise known as Junkie XL, also manages to overstay its welcome. The rocking electronic music has you in the mood from the outset but there were, to my ears and single watch, too many repeating themes and motifs. I couldn’t remember a single significant difference between the sonic landscapes of the film throughout.
More than anything, Rise proves to me that too much of a good thing can become sour if you’re not careful. There are some awesome action sequences, a favorite highlight being a blunt-force kick delivered to a Persian general that sends him flying into a wall, and the lone sex scene manages to feel wholly part of this environment: rough, a bit hokey, and more fight than intercourse. But a lot of the charm is gone despite the best efforts of the wonderful Eva Green taking a good character and making her so much more. There are simply too many fights and I felt bogged down by the way politics kept being brought about. Where the first film managed to take the political side and make it the springboard of the action, this film starts with war and feels sidetracked every time we diverge. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this film tries very hard to do some complex juggling of timelines and more. Throw out the reliance on the prequel/sequel format and make this linear instead and we might have something much more fluid and fun. For a film that should, by all rights, be a failure 300: Rise of an Empire manages to keep its head above water much longer than you might expect.