Shiny, six-pack-having Greek dudes grunt and fight while bad-ass warrior women get all the best lines in 300: Rise of an Empire, a sequel (of a sort) that is not quite as much fun as its predecessor but still pretty A-OK.
A few notes on the preceding sentence:
• The Greeks, led in this movie by Sullivan Stapleton, who plays the Athenian general Themistokles, are “Greek” in the same way that the Scottish Gerard Butler and his 300 were “Greek,” which is to say that everybody has some kind of British, Australian or New Zealand accent.
• Yes, the CGI abs are back. And, for my money, that part of the special effects budget was very well spent.
• Maybe we’ll remember Stapleton’s name after this movie, but the real stars are Lena Headey, the take-no-guff Queen Gorgo who returns from 300, and Eva Green, a Persian navy general named Artemisia (Eva Green), who is as bloodthirsty and fire-breathing as any mustache-twirling villain.
• I can remember maybe five lines of dialogue from this movie (all spoken by the female characters) and the best one comes from Artemisia and is both excellent and unrepeatable in this newspaper.
• 300: Rise of an Empire is a sequel to the 2006 movie but it also gives information about events that preceded the battle of Thermopylae, a “meanwhile, on the coast” story that happened simultaneously with Leonidas’stand and a look at what happened afterward.
• And, while Rise of an Empire is no original-recipe 300, it is a great deal of fun. However...
• I went in thinking the movie would be a crushing disaster, so perhaps I grade on a curve here.
Once again, our story is narrated, this time by Gorgo, who gives the origin story for Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), explaining how he lost his hair and gained all those face piercings on the way to becoming a god-king. We also learn in narrated flashback (this one delivered, I believe, by some deep-voiced lieutenant of Themistokles’) about Artemisia’s unhappy beginnings, which have made her just as death-worshipping and vengeance-seeking as Xerxes. Themistokles and Artemisia battle both during and after the martyr-making Thermopylae battle, and they do so both on sea and in a very memorable meeting where Artemisia’s attempts to recruit Thermopylae for her navy take a turn for the sexy.
Rise of an Empire employs a lot of the same visual tricks (gold-tone sepia filter, exaggerated use of lights and darks, the aforementioned abs) as the first movie, as well as a lot of the odd editing choices that make it impossible to understand where the action is happening. In one moment, characters on different boats are close enough to lock eyes, but a wide shot then shows these two people nowhere near each other. Battle scenes are often just a jumble of shiny warrior-parts — are there thousands of Greeks fighting a small group of Artemisia’s Persians or is it the opposite? Or is it just five guys on each side, digitally replicated as needed? The story is a similar jumble — fighting, politics, fighting, talking, fighting, angry sex, fighting, speeches whose actual words don’t really make sense (were they just filler, meant to be changed in post?), fighting, etc.
Rise of an Empire reminds me a lot in tone of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a TV show that takes place in the Marvel Avengers/Iron Man/Thor universe but without the expensive main characters. That series tells side stories with ties to the overall Marvel mythology — and that’s about where Rise of an Empire seems to be in relation to 300. Some of the same characters appear, they talk a lot about the action in that movie, but we have to get invested in a different batch of butt-kickers.
That said, 300: Rise of an Empire is kind of fun. Gory, violent, stupid fun. Though it might not be the true heir to the visually stunning, viscerally awesome fight-fest of 300 (and, since all of that movie’s most visually interesting features have been copied dozens of times since then, how could it be?), it is good enough to do until that thing comes along. B-
Rated R for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language. Directed by Noam Murro with a screenplay by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad, 300: Rise of an Empire is an hour and 42 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Bros.