Great lessons can come from strange places. For example: You wouldn’t expect a studio digging for a new franchise out of Zach Snyder’s hyper-macho masterpiece 300 to come up with what is likely to be one of the most lady-empowering tentpoles of the year.
But here we are.
Effectively a “sidequel” of sorts, 300: Rise Of An Empire takes place before, during, and after the Battle of Thermopylae as depicted in 300, similarly unfolding like a story told in the Greek oral tradition. We witness the fuller scope of Persia’s invasion of Greece- from the battle of Marathon through several naval battles led by Xerxes’ general Artemisia. This is important as it is Eva Green playing the role of Artemisia that grants this film the broiling charisma that drives it into being completely and happily watchable.
Rise Of An Empire is really nothing like Snyder’s 2007 adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, save for the overlapping characters, costumes, and reliance on narration. This is both a good and bad thing as it means the film isn’t so much a pageant of charismatic fascism and thinly-veiled homophobia, but it’s also wholly less interesting. Nearing a decade ago, Zach Snyder took on the dubious challenge of adapting famously-batshit Frank Miller’s evocatively illustrated take on that most famous of Grecian battles, and the results were truly incredible. Snyder fully embraced an absurdly beefcaked telling of the story, and matched it with one of the most visually striking, singular films of the last decade. A perfect blend of comic book and cinematic grammar, it remains one of the last films to embrace refined digital tools to make a very classical movie in which we got the best of both worlds.
There is nothing as interesting or iconic happening in this sequel, which is a fully contemporary creation of modern VFX work. Without the anchors of Miller’s illustrations or the more confined nature of the Hot Gates scenario, this movie sprawls and the CGI right along with it. Director Noam Murro pays lip service to the grammar and texture of Snyder’s film, but that basically means lots of sloppily-applied slow-motion.
Still, though the film may only be a dancing shadow on the wall, cast by the iconic glow of the original, Eva Green and her Artemisia stands in flesh-and-blood afront the shadows. Portrayed as the quiet manipulator of Xerxes and thus the overall Persian invasion of Greece, she also storms to the front lines and directs the invasion herself. Don’t believe the posters that tell you she’s stuck with the now accepted “feminine weapon” of a bow, either. She sword-fights and screws with equal command, and does so in amazing battle costumes. In fact, you can imagine Green’s Artemisia standing up to any Spartan, and doing so in skin-tight leather. Cunning and beautiful, Green makes every word out of Artemisia’s mouth drip with delight in the vengeance she’s slowly extracting from the whole of the Greek peninsula. Her main rival amongst the Greeks is Themistocles, played by the film’s “lead actor” Sullivan Stapleton.
There is a bit of dilemma here as Green is so good as to completely outshine Stapleton, who is stuck with a boring character that bears none of the delightful fury of Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender, or the others that filled out the ranks of “the brave 300.” This means Artemisia effectively becomes our Leonidas and, with her fairly compelling backstory, comes dangerously close to becoming the film’s protagonist. Fortunately the film rolls with it, and Artemisia seems to have a much larger share of the screentime than is usually granted to even the best villains. That claim may not be supported by a stopwatch, but it sure feels like she’s driving the film as much as any Greek.
There are a few 300 alumni that return, and Snyder’s talent for casting means his holdovers tend to be bright spots among the largely forgettable new faces. Rodrigo Santoro returns as the brilliantly designed and striking figure Xerxes, who plays wonderfully against Artemisia’s more active villainy. I’m happy to say David Wenham’s richly-voiced Dilios returns for an extended cameo, though his narrating duties are handed over to Lena Headey, returning to her pre-Game Of Thrones role of Queen Gorgo. Headey grabs some more substantial action for herself and handles it with familiar tenacity, even if her narration (on which the film heavily relies) doesn’t manage the same fireside quality Wenham provided in Snyder’s film.
Here I am 600+ words in and I’ve barely mentioned the action in the film, which seems absurd for a successor to the film with the most dick-hardeningly, vagina-wettingly well-captured melee combat in any movie (maybe ever). Here the action is a wider mix of hand-to-hand combat, giant CGI setpieces, and slow-motion gore. There is no lack of blood and guts, though the ink-like blood splatter has been replaced by a 3D goosh (though it’s still deliberately impressionistic). The combat is more haphazard, with the high-speed photography and camera movement even more judiciously applied.
Recall that much of the more famous action in 300 actually takes place on a tracking, horizontal line, with the camera punching in and out while speed ramping to capture the force and momentum of the combat. This was combined with beautifully executed filmmaking from every other angle as well. It evoked the comic book it adapted, but it also created a purely cinematic, wholly unique visual experience that has been (usually poorly) copied ever since.
Snyder’s masterful hand at engineering graphic, iconic sequences is sorely missing here. In fact –aside from a sex scene that is half genital-mashing and half combat– I struggle even a day later to remember a single memorable action moment in Rise of an Empire. That’s never been a problem for 300- the soldier bouncing off of Leonidas’ shield as he stands tall at the end of a merciless tear through the Persian ranks is just one of a dozen moments from that movie that has stuck with me for years.
That’s not to say the action or acting or even storytelling of 300: Rise Of An Empire is bad. I prepared myself for a numbing, weightless spectacle as the film geared up for its final climactic battle, and was happily surprised to find myself exhilarated. Sure, there’s yet another one of those video-game-esque sustained shots made from stitched-together stunts like stains every blockbuster these days (I’m on a horse on a boat, motherfucker!), but check this shit out: the action climaxes around meaningful character interaction! That’s kind of huge.
So I’m comparing it to what I consider an outright action classic but really, amidst its contemporaries, it stands out as a brutal, ass-kicking action film that unfolds thoughtfully. Not only is it entertaining, it puts swords in the hands of several ladies and doesn’t make a big damn deal about it. That’s pretty fucking cool*.
The original film sliced its way into the box office and became a huge hit, and I don’t believe it’s ever left the consciousness. WB is clearly aiming at an ongoing franchise here and I think they’ll get it, if the cheers at the end of my screening are any indication.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
*[Vague spoilers:] If I’m being real though, there are two truly terrible shots that almost undermine every cool thing the movie does. One is the fourth or so shot in the film, consisting of a horribly miscalculated bit of nudity amidst sexual assault that took me a while to get over. The other is a dramatic victory shot towards the end that seems deliberately blocked to give a hero a giant sword cock in the face of a defeated woman on her knees. Icky.