Starring: Sullivan Stapleton (Animal Kingdom), Eva Green (Casino Royale), Lena Heady (Game of Thrones), David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), Rodrigo Santoro (The Last Stand)
Director: Noam Murro (Smart People)
Writers: Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch) & Kurt Johnstad (300)
Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes
Release Date: 7 March (US, UK)
Let’s all admit it, people: 300 isn’t a masterpiece. It’s meat-headed, monotonous and absolutely ridiculous. But it had some cool action scenes, a unique visual aesthetic and some cheesy but quotable dialogue. In the six years since, many have aped elements of the film but only now have they finally released an official follow-up in the form of Rise of an Empire. Is it blasphemy? Is it madness? Or IS…IT…adequately satisfying?
Rise of an Empire is both a prequel, a sequel and a takes-place-at-the-same-time-quel (seriously, we need an official name for that) as it focuses on another frontier of the Greek/Persian conflict. Like with the original, the film plays as fast and loose with historical accuracy as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, so historians need not apply. The title is somewhat of a misnomer: not only is it not about the 300 (whose appearance here is 98% stock footage from the last film), but the whole “Rise of an Empire” part is pretty minimal. There’s not too much plot to speak of and can be summed up as “Persians bad. Greeks good. Now we fight”. The attempts to tie in to the events of the first film can be somewhat clumsy, but it does give the film a sense of scope and unification. But when the film delivers what it was made to do, it hits all the right notes. The film moves at a brisk pace, lets the action carry the story and ends with a satisfying finale that sets up for another (probably final) instalment. On a story level, Rise of an Empire is a superior film to its predecessor with a much better structured plot and more defined heroes and villains. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but it gets the job done.
The cast of Rise of an Empire clearly know what kind of film they are in and deliver the level of performance you’d expect from a movie that could easily be re-titled Blood, Swords, Abs & Tits. Sullivan Stapleton does a serviceably job as hero Themistocles, but he lacks the bravado and ferocity Gerard Butler brought to King Leonidas. Like the first film, the rest of the soldiers are pretty forgettable and are basically there to kick arse and then die in a fountain of gore. Lena Heady returns as Queen Gorgo from the original but is relegated to narrator for most of the film’s runtime with promise of a bigger part in the next one, whilst David Wenham’s Diliois is nothing more than a series of glorified cameos. Rodrigo Santoro’s Xerxes has little screen time as well, as after a rushed origin story for him he goes off to serve his role in the first movie. Which is perfectly fine, as Eva Green’s Artemisia is a more than satisfactory replacement and the true standout of the film. Green revels in a role that would come off as clichéd in the hands of a less qualified actress, as she goes for broke and perfectly embodies a character oozing with deadliness and sex appeal. The film lights up every time she’s on screen and you’ll be wanting for more every time she leaves.
The visuals of 300 hundred have been ripped off so many times since the first one that it doesn’t really feel that special anymore, but it sticks with the style and it still works. The effects look near identical to the original, but somehow the blood effects look worse. Seriously, it looks more like CG ketchup most of the time. Whilst the effects, production design and costumes (or in the case of the Greek soldiers, lack thereof) are on par with the first film, the action scenes have noticeably improved. Whilst the battles in the first film were cool to behold at first, they quickly became grading and started to meld together into a mush of spears and pectorals. Rise of an Empire mixes up the action with the addition of naval battles and, as Assassin’s Creed IV proved, adding naval battles always makes everything better. The addition of ships to the mix gives the film a bigger sense of scale and ferocity as the swinging of swords is combined with the splintering of wood. Even the few land based battles, such as the opening scene’s depiction of the Battle of Marathon, have a much better pace and vigour than most of the action in the first film. Heck, there’s even a sex scene that is shot, cut and scored as if it was a fight scene, which results in a strange combination of awesome and unintentionally hilarious. Top it off with an anachronistic but thumping score, and this film has the bases covered.
300: Rise of an Empire delivers just what it needs to: lots of action scenes full of blood and slo-mo with some cheesy dialogue and a few tits thrown in for good measure. If you liked the first film, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t, you won’t. It’s as simple as that. It’s a much better film than you might expect but not by much. If you’re in the mood for mindless fun, you could do much worse.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10