by Philip Price
It has been seven years since the original Zack Snyder “300” hit the big screen and the big question surrounding its belated follow-up was always going to be if the novelty of the look of the film had worn off. It was a worthy concern as it seems every major action film since has if not taken cues from the tone of the color palette and enhanced nature of it all than at least the slo-mo of the action that then speeds up to real time, making the strikes from spear to flesh all the more cringe-inducing. It was something fresh and new at the time, Snyder coming off his big win that was the “Dawn of the Dead” remake and taking notes from Robert Rodriguez, but going in a different direction and one that would become more of a cultural mainstay than the more cult-worthy “Sin City.” Like that graphic novel, “300” was also adapted from a Frank Miller work and while ‘Rise of an Empire’ doesn't take its marching orders from any pre-written comic book it at least tries to make-up for the lack of originality in the visuals by pushing the narrative to more complicated, layered lengths than the original. While “300” was never a film that needed a sequel and really deserved not to have one as a proper sequel could never be concocted ‘Rise of an Empire’ ultimately gives us the events that surround the actions of the Spartans as they chose not to cooperate with the rest of Greece to fight off the invading Persians. It comes to light even more than it did in “300” that if the Spartans were anything but brave, they were arrogant and in many ways the events documented in this second film minimize the glory and honor that many in the audience no doubt imagined went along with Leonidas and his brave 300's beautiful deaths. They went into battle expecting death, but left their women and children with the likelihood of being turned into slaves by Persians anyway? It doesn't make much sense and ultimately seems selfish in order to adhere to the code of how they were raised than anything resembling bravery, but the good thing of all this is realizing ‘Rise of an Empire’ stirred some thought in me and invoked a reaction and participation with the film I never expected to have.
There have been several action or purported to be action films that have come out over the last month or so that have amounted to more than I expected them to be and that is because they didn't strictly exist to wet the appetite of 13-year old boys and their need to witness violence somewhere other than their video games. These films, like “RoboCop” and “Non-Stop,” have more or less weighed more heavily on the repercussions of actions rather than the actions themselves and if “300: Rise of an Empire” makes anything clear between the pools of blood it does in fact conjure up to satisfy those adolescent demands is that there is a remorse that comes along with leading an army and that the wives and children who will go on without a husband or father figure will always weigh heavily on the people who ordered their services necessary. One in such a position would find it hard to go on if constantly thinking in those terms, but this intelligent, introspective and earnest leadership is what we have at the head of ‘Rise of an Empire’ in the form of Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton). As fearless a fighter as Leonidas Themistokles also has the advantage of a well-balanced head on his shoulders to the point that it doesn't end up in the hands of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) as he dangles it over his massive cities. While it seemed clear from the marketing of the film that they were positioning Themistokles as the replacement Leonidas the film made it clear throughout that Themistokles was a very different breed than Gerard Butler's howling, uber-confident King. Themistokles is no king, but a seasoned warrior and brilliant strategist that sets in motion the events of the second Persian invasion when he attacked the Persians during the first invasion of Greece as soon as they landed on his shores giving them no time to rest or set-up shop. He catches them at their weakest moment and launches the arrow that strikes their King Darius (Igal Naor) in the chest, sentencing him to death. This allows his most trusted general, Artemisia (Eva Green) to plant the seed of vengeance in Xerxes ear spurring his transformation to the God King and the favor of his people that would allow his reign the reaches he imagines.
While Xerxes still reigns supreme here and we get Lena Headey's Queen Gorgo narrating this time around which gives us insight into the transformation undergone by Xerxes from wallowing young man to the flawless, gold-ladened God the main focus in terms of antagonist goes to Green's Artemisia. Green has always been an interesting actress in terms of her role selection. She is someone who received her big break by becoming the only Bond girl to carry over from one film to another and leave a lasting effect on that titular British agent, but has since skewed closer to darker roles or appearing in films outside of U.S. distribution. Her role in the underwhelming “Dark Shadows” is somewhat akin to her ruthless naval commander here, but she ups the camp in almost every aspect and simply goes for it not only allowing the ridiculousness of these films to give a self-aware nod to the audience without it descending into something completely different than what audiences expect, but at the same time giving audiences exactly what they want in an over-the-top villain that has a no holds-barred mentality when it comes to discipline and a taste for blood that results in the amount of action that the quota for this type of film needs to fulfill. What allows ‘Rise of an Empire’ an extra edge as well is that it takes the action to the sea. While it begins with sword and sandal beach brawls it becomes evident fairly quickly that the style the film is presented in isn't the only style that may have worn out its welcome. Seeing these men cut and stabbed as liters of blood spurt from their fatal wounds (in 3D! which doesn't add much I will say; only in one shot did I really feel the effects and felt it genuinely aided the scope) as Themistokles makes his way to the shore made it all very reminiscent of that first time we watched Leonidas do the same things. It is evident the advantage of this slo-mo approach is to not only make things look cool, but to also show the small moments that take place within these large battles and director Noam Murro utilizes this technique to good effect. He may even over-use it, no doubt some will say he does, but in taking these battles to sea and opening up a new world of opportunity, of strategy and of dynamics it allows the film to do the same and thus allows the film to feel fresh despite the style it is required to carry.
Where “300” was a very straightforward and simple story that documented the way of life and upbringing of a small civilization that was defined in 480 BC by the Battle of Thermopylae Rise of an Empire fleshes that story out to even greater lengths and gives us the details of the simultaneous naval battle led by Themistokles. There is more to be delved into in this chapter as while this is certainly Themistokles' movie and it honors the politician and general he was it is not his movie in the same sense “300” was Leonidas'. There is no need to tirelessly compare the two films as it is difficult to even think of them as a first and second entry in a series as they turn out to be more of companion pieces than anything else. I enjoyed how well Murro and screenwriters Snyder (who also produced), Miller and Kurt Johnstad were able to weave in the choices of Leonidas, his Queen and Dilios (David Wenham) the only surviving member of the original three hundred Spartans, and how they influenced the decisions of Themistokles is his defense of a united Greece against the Persians. It made the story full while never forgetting that it was its own beast in giving backstory not only to the evolution of Xerxes but to that of Artemisia as well. I was worried early on that after seeing two recounts of character origin stories the narrative might try to do too much and become bogged down in its roster and the politics of the situation ultimately undoing the immediate charm of “300.” Instead, once the lines were drawn and these evils established it became clear that the film was actually invested in the character of who Themistokles was and how he handled relationships with his fellow soldiers and how he encouraged them in battle yet didn't encourage them to seek confrontation. It was simplistically yet nicely conveyed by Stapleton that Themistokles was a man of the people, that no matter how high his prominence rose he would not give in to the wishes of Athenian nobility and instead built the strong naval defenses that would see him survive the war with Xerxes. Though we should never get our history lessons from the movies and the representation of Leonidas and his brave 300 were naturally heightened for these films doesn't make it any less compelling and even if the novelty of Snyder's stark style has long since worn off, ‘Rise of an Empire’ surprisingly makes it clear substance can still prevail.