300: Rise of an Empire

Xerxes reigns in this bloody, sexy, and surprisingly engaging sequel to the Greek epic 300

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300: Rise of an Empire

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Directed by Noam Murro. Starring Lena Headey, Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro, Sullivan Stapleton, David Wenham, Jack O’Connell, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, Andrew Tiernan, Mark Killeen, Ashraf Barhom, Luke Roberts, Yigal Naor, Wayne Dalglish, George Georgiou, Peter Ferdinando, Julian Stone, Andrei Claude. Written by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad, from the graphic novel “Xerxes” by Frank Miller.

Warning: major spoilers for the first 300 film in the paragraphs below. 

Zach Snyder’s 300, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, told the epic story of the 300 Spartans who fought to the death at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., holding off an invading Persian army long enough to give Greek forces a fighting chance. It was one of western civilization’s most famous last stands, endlessly retold and given new life by Snyder, who in his second feature film one-upped contemporaries like Michael Bay with one of the most striking and stylish mainstream blockbusters to ever hit screens. 

It’s also one of the more unlikely films to get the sequel treatment: 300 ends with our heroes defeated, dead in a bloody pile, as nearly every major character has perished in the epic battle. 300: Rise of an Empire begins with the post-mortem decapitation of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) by the god king Xerxes (played by Rodrigo Santoro). Where, we wonder, where this film be going next?

Rise of an Empire is purportedly based on a follow-up graphic novel by Frank Miller entitled Xerxes, which is interesting in the fact that not only has the novel not been released, but that, by all accounts, Miller hasn’t even finished writing it. That must be a first; I wonder what material, exactly, Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (who also wrote the first film) based their screenplay upon. 

Given that a direct sequel to 300 would be impossible – not only are our heroes dead, but we don’t have enough background information from the first film about the Greco–Persian Wars to justify a follow-up in that regard – Rise of an Empire does something really interesting: it takes place both before, during, and after the events of the first film, fleshing out the supporting characters and detailing concurrent battles during the Wars. 

In effect, this storyline – even if it didn’t work on its own – actually enhances the experience of the original 300. Armed with additional information about the surrounding war, we can better appreciate the Battle of Thermopylae and what it meant in the bigger picture. Bonus: Rise of an Empire is fully entertaining in its own right. Now this is how you make a legit sequel. 

All that’s missing: a directorial flair worthy of Zach Snyder’s original touch. Directed by Noam Murro (who previously made the indie dramedy Smart People), Rise of an Empire is stylish and often striking, but it’s also a murky, hazy experience that imitates but just doesn’t live up to the gorgeously vibrant and detailed visuals of the 2006 film. Part of that (but not, I fear, all of it) may be down to the dim 3D format in which I viewed the film. 

Rise of an Empire charts the origins of the god king Xerxes, who begins as a normal-looking Rodrigo Santoro before a golden-bath transformation turns him into a shimmering, jewel-studded giant after the death of his father at the hands of Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) during battle. Seeking vengeance for his father’s death, Xerxes steps up the assault on Greek shores. 

But as Xerxes leads his army to face the Spartans led by King Leonidas at Thermopylae, Themistokles combats forces led by his right-hand woman Artemisia (Eva Green) at sea during the Battle of Artemisium. Things heat up during a mid-battle meeting between opposing generals behind closed doors: for an all-too-brief moment, the film shifts gears for one of the most erotic sex scenes you’ll ever see in a Hollywood comic book epic.

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Stapleton is adequate in the lead, but comes nowhere near the iconic, career-defining performance Gerard Butler gave in the original film; Rise of an Empire is sorely missing the kind of central presence that Butler provided in the first film. 

The stunningly beautiful Green, meanwhile, handily runs away with the movie: at once vulnerable (raped and left for dead as a child before being saved by Persian Samaritan) and cunningly manipulative (coercing Xerxes to defy his father’s dying wish and continue the invasion of Greece), Green completely dominates the proceedings, and is such a strong presence that I found myself rooting for the villain here. Like her or not, you won’t be able to take your eyes off of her. 

Like the original film, Rise of an Empire relies heavily on post-production effects and CGI violence, which aren’t quite as well integrated; a grittier and vaguely more realistic-looking film, I was often distracted by the cartoonish CGI blood spatter that fills the screen during the frequent battle scenes. Speaking of the fighting, the action scenes are competently filmed, with plenty or wartime strategy, but the hand-to-hand combat is often too sturm-und-drang to really capture your attention (though the heavy bloodshed might do the trick anyway). 

Going in with low expectations (how can you make a sequel to 300?), I was pleasantly surprised by Rise of an Empire, which broadens and builds upon the material in the original film. In an age of unnecessary sequels that just rehash the same old story, here’s one that genuinely adds to the big picture. 

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