By Will Ashton | firstname.lastname@example.org| @thewillofash
300: Rise of an Empire | Directed by Noam Murro | Rated R
It may be the sincerest form of flattery, but I feel that, generally, it is lazy, unimaginative and extremely restrictive. I disliked the fourth season of Community before it was cool to do so, I thought Kick-Ass 2 was a juvenile attempt to be as funny and edgy as the original, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 was a hazily-made reminder of why the Phil Lord- Chris Miller touch is so important.
With that in mind, I had my reservations about 300: Rise of an Empire. Due to his commitments with Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder was unable to return to the helm of this cinematic return, although he did earn himself a screenwriting credit this time around.
So, taking over for him would be Noam Murro, who’s only other film is Smart People, the movie that was a rip-off of every movie that has prided itself into the Sundance Film Festival for the past decade. I feared the worst.
But apparently, I shouldn’t have. For, much like this week’s other surprise, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, this return is able to capture the insanity and visual style of the original, while also blending in its own sensibilities. Is it as good as the original? No, but it is still a worthy successor.
Based on Frank Miller’s comic book Xerxes, this movie is not so much a sequel or a prequel, but rather a sort-of inbetween-quel. This adventure, primarily, follows Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) as he is forced to lead his army against the Persians invasion, which is commanded by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and Artemisia (Eva Green).
Let’s be honest with ourselves for a second: no matter how many fans the original 300 had, it was no masterpiece. It was silly, it was stupid, and it was about as historically accurate as Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. But it was a shiny, well-oiled piece of fun entertainment, and kept its aspirations thankfully low.
Much is the same with 300: Rise of an Empire. It’s still as stupid, silly and historically liberal as could be, but it knows it and tries to keep itself loyal to the spirit of the original, while also infusing a bit of its own spunk. In fact, if anything, the film appears to be at its weakest when it tries to kiss the heals of the original 300.
Case and point: the slow-mo, fast-mo thing that even Snyder himself has moved away from. Listen, it was fun enough back in 2007, but it is getting old now, and everyone and their grandma has tried to either copy it or parody it. I am a little more lenient here because it is the sequel to the film that made this popular in the first place, but, still. Do we need in every other scene?
With that said, besides the over-annunciation on the original’s style, this film succeeds, quite well actually, in the action department. All the battle scenes are clearly shot, well choreographed and CG-bloody as can be. And this time, I make that final point in the best way possible. While it does grow a bit repetitive as the film progresses, it is clear that Murro and the screenwriters know what the audience wants, and it gives it to be in hearty servings.
Where the film doesn’t succeed as well, though, is when it tries to gather an emotional tug from its audience. More so than last time, this film tries to make you care about these characters and their plight. And while that is a noble effort, it ultimately is unsuccessful. In fact, it often weighs the film down, as they spend a great deal of time trying to make you feel for these guys when, really, you don’t.
That said, though what struck me so much about this continuation, in a good way, was the presence of strong female characters. One of the few returning characters from the original is Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who not only gets more screen time in this adventure, but plays a more prominent and central character than she ever played in the original film. But, in particular, the female character that surprised me the most was Artemisia, who not only is the most developed in the film, but is the most interesting and entertaining.
Green has always been able to bring some flair to her performances, even when it’s just as the love interest in Casino Royale. But here, she is able to not only get room to shine, but it able to use her sexiness and mystique to her full advantage. It is a primary feature in why this sequel is able to succeed, and, thankfully, Murro and his crew seem to know it.
That said, I still don’t think this movie passes the Bechdel test, as far as I remember.
Primarily, where this installment succeeds where the original didn’t, though, is that, thankfully, this one has a sense of humor about itself. One of the things that dragged the original down was how self-serious it was. While it deviated away from this during its action sequences, it often got so caught up in its style that it forgot that this is just supposed to be fun, at least on its own terms.
With this one, however, they are much more self-aware about how silly this all is, and make good comedic use of it. While this film is no where near as quotable as the original, there is a line uttered by Artemisia in the third act that is as worthy as any line repeated by 13-year-old boys after the first one. Additionally, there is a sex scene here that is one for the record books.
Like the original, the film departs pretty open-ended. In fact, this one is even more so than the original. It seems like they are hoping for a third 300 to make its way into theaters. While I can’t guarantee that fans will line up to see this one like they did the first time, I can say that it is worth the investment. It may be a cover band, but, admittedly, it’s a pretty good one.