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Review: 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

Directed by: Noam Murro

Premise: A sequel to the 2007 film. As the forces of the Persian Empire invade Greece, Athenian general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) engages in a naval battle with Persian commander Artemisia (Eva Green).

What Works: It’s rare for a sequel to be better than the original film but 300: Rise of an Empire is the rare follow up that in many ways exceeds its predecessor and it makes a very interesting companion piece. This story is not just an extension of the first film but exists concurrently with the original 300, as a great deal of the action of the sequel occurs simultaneously with the events of the first film. Consequently, Rise of an Empire is able to do what a good sequel should, which is to enrich the first film and complicate our understandings of the earlier picture. Much of what viewers enjoyed about 300 is retained here but Rise of an Empire provides fuller and more interesting characters. The 300 franchise is defined by a bigger than life style and the characters of this film are again large muscular figures who engage in excessive acts of violence. But as big as they are, the characters of Rise of an Empire are less cartoonish and have more humanity to them. The film is led by Themistokles, played by Sullivan Stapleton. He comes across as a distinctly different character than King Leonidas, played memorably by Gerard Butler in the first film. Themistokles is wearier of warfare and the loss of his men weighs more heavily on his character. Themistokles’ opponent in Rise of an Empire is Artemisia, a Persian naval commander played by Eva Green. Although Green is smaller in stature than a lot of the almost entirely male cast, her presence is the strongest of the movie and Artemisia is a terrific character. She is smart and vicious but she also has a backstory that gives her quest to destroy Greece an added dimension and even makes her a little sympathetic. By pairing these two smart warriors as opponents, Rise of an Empire is able to focus on strategy in addition to bloodshed and the emphasis on the characters allows the filmmakers to complicate the stakes of the battle.

What Doesn’t: Although Rise of an Empire improves on the original film in its plotting and characterization, the sequel might not satisfy some fans of the original film. The first 300 picture became an immense hit for both the right and the wrong reasons. It was a tremendous spectacle that swept up the viewer in its violent romanticism and it demonstrated great technical filmmaking skill. However, the movie was also unabashedly fascistic and played to xenophobia and racism while making a hero out of a tyrannical psychopath. Rise of an Empire walks back and even reverses some of the Neanderthal politics of the first movie but the softer braggadocio of the sequel might make it less appealing to its core audience. Despite the efforts to make a more thoughtful picture, this is still a 300 movie and the combat scenes are frequently absurd and excessive. Those qualities define the style of the 300 franchise but shot after shot of swords cutting through limbs as though they were blood-filled water balloons does get numbing after a while and it becomes less impressive as the film goes on. Part of the larger purpose of this film, as indicated by the subtitle Rise of an Empire, is to dramatize the unification of the Greek city states as a single entity against the threat of invasion. This aspect of the film does not quite work out. The Spartans and the Athenians do eventually come together but only at the last minute and the film ends very abruptly without suggesting how this alliance will hold together or if it will hold at all.

Bottom Line: 300: Rise of an Empire may not be a perfect sequel but it is a very good one. The film does much of what a follow-up should, complicating the story and raising the stakes. This picture sets up the series for a third installment and hopefully we don’t have to wait another seven years before it arrives.

Episode: #482 (March 16, 2014)