300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

The wait is finally over. After a lengthy 7 year gap, the sequel to the 2006 ultra-stylistic swords and sandals mega-hit 300 has at last arrived. Also famous for its bare-chested male cast, who sported extremely well defined six-packs, 300 became an overnight worldwide box-office success and a sequel was reportedly in the works almost immediately. 300: Rise of an Empire — originally titled 300: The Battle of Artemisia during production — works as both a prequel and sequel to the original film taking place before, after and in-between the events of 300, which focused on King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and the mighty 300 men’s battle with the Persian army at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Credited as being an adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel titled Xerxes — though the novel is not yet complete and Miller has reportedly drawn only 2 out of a projected 5 issues, with none colored and currently no release date or expected date of completion — this next chapter of the cinematic saga takes the action to a new battlefield — on the sea — as Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) attempts to unite all of Greece by leading a charge that will change the course of the war. 300: Rise of an Empire pits Themistokles against the massive invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and the vengeful commander of the Persian navy, Artemisia (Eva Green).

Off with their heads!
Off with their heads!

Originally on-board to direct, Zack Snyder, the man responsible for helming the original picture — being the film that cemented his position as a Hollywood film-maker heavy-weight — only conceptualized Rise of an Empire and, along with his 300 writing partner, Kurt Johnstad, Act of Valor (2012), penned the screenplay, dropping off due to unforeseeable commitments to Man of Steel (2013). With Snyder out of the picture, though still heavily involved in the project as producer — helping to keep the original film’s tone and atmosphere — Israeli filmmaker Noam Murro, Smart People (2008), was handpicked by the studio to direct. Keeping true to the breathtaking visual style of Snyder and Miller’s vision in 300, Murro does a superb job in helming the sequel/ prequel with stunning effects, large scale combats sequences and gigantic naval battles, while making a clear and conscious effort to differentiate itself from its predecessor by setting the story on the sea. With the trademark imagery that made 300 such a success — artistically breath-taking visuals, stunningly powerful fight scenes, stylistic devices for dramatic intensity and slow-motion shots on sweaty six packs — there is a slightly stronger story focus this time around, placing more of an emphasis on the characters, also giving viewers an interesting, yet brief, backstory behind Xerxes’ transformation from human to semi-god. Everything in the film is bigger and more grandeur than the first — it’s much more violent — fight sequences are often soaked with bloody splatter or severed limbs hurling through the air, belonging to soldiers who have fallen on the battlefield; though somewhat artistic, the violence can be a little too graphic for audiences not accustom to seeing this style of explicit detailed carnage.

With Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas character meeting his fate at the conclusion of 300, and Butler turning down the opportunity to reprise his role as Leonidas, claiming that it ‘wasn’t really his thing,’ it was always going to be a difficult task filling the heavy shoes of Butler, who became a global superstar after his powerful performance in the original film. While there were apparently several big names interested in the lead role of Themistocles, the studio opted for a star-making vehicle rather than a star-strutted vehicle and cast Australian actor — born and raised in my hometown of Melbourne — Sullivan Stapleton, Animal Kingdom (2010), in the lead role. Stapleton, revealing that this role absolutely required him, ‘to get a six pack for the first time in his life,’ underwent hours of excessive training and dieting to buff up for the character of Themistocles — Stapleton clearly puts everything into this performance, delivering heroic monologues about death and honor with such enthusiasm and gusto. Though giving his all, Stapleton’s screen presence unfortunately never comes off quite as strong or memorable as Butler’s. Lena Headey, Dredd (2012), returns playing Queen Gorgo as does David Wenham, Public Enemies (2009), playing the one-eyed soldier Dilios and while all performances are generally decent, nothing overly stands out.

Don't mess with Artemisia!
Don’t mess with Artemisia!

But viewers not need worry, French born actress Eva Green, Casino Royale (2006), as the merciless blood thirsty Artimesia, who leads the Persian navy against the Greeks, literally carries the picture on her shoulders, creating one of the most majestic and impressive villains in recent memory. Eva Green is honestly magnificent to watch, crafting that perfect balance between fear inducing evil and haunting sorrow — not knowing whether you, as an audience member, should be rooting for or against her — desperate to succeed in her personal vendetta against the Greeks, constantly going head-to-head with them on the sea. Green is spectacularly gorgeous, fiercely dressed — leather and chainmail has never been so fetching — displaying a dangerous persona, capable of slicing ones throat at any given moment; she delivers her lines with such poise and elegance. Fulfilling her long held dream of playing an action hero in a film, Green portrays Artimesia as a damaged heroine, throwing the picture’s tone into interesting territory. Her relationship with Greek rival Themistocles plays out in a very unique and curious way, as it’s clear she admires him for his skill and strategy as a general. Eva Green is certainly the one to watch in this film — behold Artimesia and tremble in fear.

Launching 300: Rise of an Empire in 3D seemed to be the natural and proper choice for filmmakers, as the aesthetic and depth-of-field this platform offers really enhances and elevates the artistic style of its gorgeous visuals, showcasing the formats true potential — there are several standout 3D battle scenes that will surely stick out as highlights and benchmarks for the 3D format. The soundtrack is just as epic and large-scale as the production and composer Junkie XL, Divergent (2014), also known as Tom Holkenborg, who supplies the music for the picture, does a wonderful job in keeping true to the original film’s tone, yet adds something fresh, modern and hard-hitting to the score.

... Generals gathered in their masses ...
… Generals gathered in their masses …

For those who enjoyed Zack Snyder’s 2006 picture 300, Rise of an Empire surely won’t disappoint as the stunning art direction, costume and production design, and cinematography are just as grandiose, extravagant and captivating as the original’s, even more so in certain areas, and all involved do a wonderful job keeping true to the tone of the first film, while the modern soundtrack supplies the oomph and sheer force to boost the picture’s overall energy. As one would expect, the fight scenes are much more elaborate and grand — though possibly overly violent or tremendously bloody for some — and while the eccentric over-the-top Butler isn’t around to be the pillar for the film, the sultry Eva Green’s performance will surely fill his shoes, leaving Butler’s King Leonidas a long-forgotten memory. 300: Rise of an Empire is a film Snyder himself would undoubtedly be proud of, making it a great companion and addition to the original.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by S-Littner

300: Rise of an Empire is released through Warner Bros. Home Entertainment