Sequels are so often demonized by critics and film writers that when one arrives that surpasses the original, it feels like a major achievement. “300: Rise of an Empire” is hardly a major achievement, but it successfully builds on the rather average source material that it ends up being a far more enjoyable experience.
I shrugged off the original when it came out, a technically impressive visual feast that would have been 20 minutes long if not for the benefit of slow motion being used in every single scene. “300” was a loud, garish spectacle that was dumber than a box of hammers, with dialogue yelled through the thick Scottish brogue of Gerard Butler—every line quoted and satirized for years to come. Zingers like “This…is…Sparta!” and “Tonight we dine in hell!” now are pop-culture staples. Unfortunately, the original movie wasn’t all that good.
The sequel takes the surreal visual style of the original and improves by doing one simple thing: dialing it back. Sequels usually strip-mine the original and dial up everything to a ridiculous degree. The truth is: Most sequels are double-down propositions. They just take what worked in the original and double the portions. So, many are trips back to the well with extra buckets. Compared to the original, “Rise of an Empire” feels downright subtle. It has all the visual trickery and the sweat shirtless action of the original, but they abandon a lot of the ancillary volume and actually craft some decent characters.
Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) is an Athenian warrior trying to unite Greece against the rising Persian army and their God-King, Xerxes. The entire Greek empire is in danger of getting curb-stomped into oblivion at the hands of a persnickety warrior queen, Artemisia (Eva Green). The entire movie centers around their conflict of good vs. evil—democracy vs. tyranny. The underdog takes on the vastly superior enemy. Fortunately, there’s some deviations that make “Rise of an Empire” stand out among these screaming sword-and-sandals movies.
There’s one scene in particular that won me over and showed just how spry this sequel was willing to be. Right around the middle of the film, there is a stock moment where Themistokles and Artemisia meet on neutral ground to discuss the terms of their ongoing conflict. It’s the kind of chess game often seen in these epic-war movies; rival warriors circle one another and talk about the consequences of battle. Artemisia offers Themistokles to join her and tries to seduce him. This is where I was expecting the hero to spurn her advances and walk away. Instead, he rips her clothes off, and the two of them start going at it like two horny honey badgers. It’s such a great scene, because it takes the normal conventions of the genre and allows its characters to have some moments of human weakness. These movies are always so chaste and pure. It was nice to see both the hero and villain as more than just a conqueror and bad guy.
“Rise of an Empire” also weaves back and forth with the original movie. The film starts before the events of “300,” and then eventually pass beyond the point where it ends. It’s an interesting choice and excellent in its execution. One of the biggest hang-ups I had with “300” came with the idea that all of Greece was basically in the hands of 300 really good warriors. I kept wondering where the rest of the Greek army was. “Rise of an Empire” answers those question, and expands the world to make the war seem epic rather than insular.
The action is once again a crazy mish-mash of brutal pugilism, slow motion, and special-effects-laden eye porn. For some reason it felt less grating this time. The action is smoother and more refined. The battles have a better sense of geography and are big but never feel bloodless. In fact, they were ridiculously bloody with slo-mo streams of crimson shooting at the audience in 3D like a gazpacho-filled fire hose. “300: Rise of an Empire” is a great example of how to improve on the original. This is a highly entertaining piece of fluff and a complete surprise.
300: Rise of an Empire
Starring Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro, Callan Mulvey, Sullivan Stapleton, Jamie Blackley
Directed by Noam Murro