Full disclosure: I don’t care for 300. It’s not so much the movie itself, but more so the way in which it molded the entire sword-and-sandals genre in its own image that I find offensive.
Since Zack Snyder’s juiced-up adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel was released in 2006, almost every big period film to hit theaters has relied on the same speed-ramped, sepia toned visual style as a measure to attract young males and keep budgets low. While this decision made perfect fiscal sense coming in the wake of several flopped historical epics (Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven, etc.), it unfortunately spawned a wave of low-rent imitators like Tarsem Singh’s dreadful Immortals or Renny Harlin’s charmless The Legend of Hercules. These movies are, at best, hollow pastiches more interested in fueling the bloodlust of Mountain Dew-chugging teens than they are in offering any perspective on the history of Western civilization. It must be said, however, that of all the copies 300 has wrought, the best in the bunch by a mile is its own sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire.
Right off the bat, Rise of an Empire defies expectations. Rather than jumping in directly after the conclusion of 300, the film instead presents a sort of side-car story, with events running parallel to those of the first film. This time our lead is Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), a crafty Athenian general who favors a more strategic style over meat-headed Leonidas’ blunt approach. Bent on destroying Greece, golden god-king Xerxes and his vast army head towards Thermopylae by sea. Themistocles begs the council for support, only to be blocked by petty bureaucracy. Determined to save his homeland, the brave general enlists a handful of elite warriors to join him in a suicide mission at sea, waging guerrilla warfare against the Persian fleet.
In a nutshell, it’s the first movie – except the battles occur on water instead of land. As it turns out, though, this geographical substitution amps up the action considerably, aided by improvements seen in digital effects since the last installment. The ensuing battle of Thermopylae is a visual spectacle, as we see fish-eye views of the fiery carnage above and watch as soldiers leap from boat to boat, locked in slow-mo combat with a nautical twist.
With Snyder fleeing the directors chair in order to enter the Superhero arena, new helmer Noam Murro (Smart People) manages to inject life into a franchise built on artifice. Against all odds, he derives a layered performance from the often staid Eva Green, who knocks it out of the park as Xerxes’ lusty right-hand woman Artemisia. When the love/hate relationship bubbling between her and Themistocles boils over in a sex/fight scene(!), we actually feel something for the characters. I can’t think of a similar moment in the original film, which often played more like a PS3 cutscene than a work of cinema.
Indeed, Rise of an Empire is deserving of a critical reappraisal, so if you skipped it the first time, give it a chance this week as its released on DVD and Blu-Ray. Special features include making-of documentaries detailing the production design and visual effects of the battle sequences, a doc about the training regimen the actors were put through upon being cast and a featurette detailing the real history behind the battle of Thermopylae.