The belated sequel/prequel to Zack Snyder’s 300 fails to thrill but Eva Green’s dastardly villain is reason enough to give director Noam Murro’s film a go…
Back in 2007, 300 was a surprise smash hit. Based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller (known for being the creator of Sin City and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) about 300 doomed Spartans, and directed by newcomer Zack Snyder with a cast of relative unknowns doesn’t sound like the kind of film that rings box office gold. Yet the film’s epic and tragic storyline, hyper-stylised action, beautiful oil painting-like scenery and the mega-combination of swords, sandals, six-packs, blood, and Gerard Butler booming “This is Sparta!” resonated with audiences, making it one of the most successful films of that year and one of the great graphic-novel adaptations alongside Sin City, Kick-Ass and Watchmen.
Zack Snyder’s vision was visually coherent and made complete sense, being an adaptation of a comic book source, so it comes as no surprise that the film gets a belated sequel, or rather a prequel/sequel to be more accurate. 300: Rise of an Empire – based on the as-of-yet-unpublished graphic novel by Frank Miller, Xerxes – takes place before, during and after the events of the original, with the storyline frequently running in parallel.
Unfortunately all the male heroes are one-dimensional, lacking the edginess and spikiness the Spartans had, and endlessly giving eulogies about war, responsibility and family. What should have been deep and powerful scenes, end up being dull. Having a somewhat bland lead certainly doesn’t help this issue. Sullivan Stapleton is similarly charisma-free as the heroic Themistokles, and at times it feels like he’s trying to be like Gerard Butler’s Leonidas from the first film, but only looking foolish by comparison. He too has been given some interesting material involving the character’s guilt over his involvement in the starting of the war, his deep and personal regret at sending so many young men to their early graves, and having to be in command, but yet he doesn’t really have the proper acting chops to bring that material to life. In fact, he’s completely and effortlessly outmatched and out-acted by Lena Headey, who returns as the Spartan Queen Gorgo, and delivers some of the film’s best lines, as well as a few of its most ridiculous. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been given much to do and is sort of sidelined until the final battle in the film.
In the end, it’s really the villains that are the most interesting characters and Eva Green’s electrifying performance as the main antagonist, Artemisia, is, by far and away, the best thing in the entire film. Green completely dominates whenever she’s on screen, chewing the digital scenery in huge amounts and spitting out her lines with fearless passion and gusto, and is really the only one who even comes close to capturing the high-camp charisma of someone like Gerard Butler. Even though her character does spring from the stereotypical backstory of rape and degradation, which is so often the catalyst behind badass females in pop culture, Artemisia is overtly ambitious with an extreme intelligence to match, and the film never undermines her authority. Plus, only Green could get away with scenes like the one where she happily decapitates an Athenian soldier and then plants a passionate, tongue-fuelled kiss on his lifeless head, or the infamous scene where Artemisia lures Themistokles for a parlay and winds up seducing him, resulting in a hilarious fight/sex scene that ends with a topless Green brandishing a sword to Themistokles’ neck. Normally, such a scenery-chewing performance would be ridiculous, but here it works as she has created one of the greatest pop culture/comic book villains ever, alongside the Joker and Loki, and her full-throated performance is perhaps the sole reason why you should see this film.
In 300: Rise of an Empire, we actually get to witness Xerxes’ origin story about how he transformed from a naïve prince to the 10-feet-tall, golden laced, God King, which proves to be one of the film’s most memorable moments. Unfortunately after that, Rodrigo Santoro is reduced to little screen time, which is a shame considering the title of the unpublished graphic novel source being solely about him. Yet despite the few scenes he has, he is still the flamboyant, spoilt, menacing King that you knew from the first film with Santoro infusing the character with the same amount of camp and menace he had originally.
Whilst new helmsman, Noam Murro, tries his best at capturing the same tone and feel of the first film, he seems to lack the style, energy and panache that Zack Snyder infused into his 300, which he then applied to both Watchmen and Man of Steel. Whereas Snyder’s direction felt lively and dynamic, Murro’s direction feels second-rate and lacks the energetic flow to carry the film through despite the script’s many sharp and fruity quips embedded throughout. What made the first film great was that it was real-life history as if it was told from within the mind of Frank Miller, and both Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad maintained that aspect in their screenplay of the first film, and they still keep that element in the second film. It is certainly a fascinating idea by having this story play out before, during and after the first film as it adds more depth to what had gone before, but yet it lacks the right filmmaker to make it more dramatic and thought-provoking.
The visuals are stunning and are very reminiscent of the oil painting-like visuals of the first film with everything being super-stylised and shown in a comic-book-esque style with a saturated yet striking colour palette. The score by Junkie XL is also very pulse pounding and dynamic, cranking up the tension and bringing life into the film in a way the direction doesn’t. The action is certainly aplenty throughout the film with nearly all the battles now taking place on sea rather than on land, which is an interesting contrast to the first film’s battles at the Hot Gates. Whilst the naval battle sequences are well choreographed, they become a tad repetitive as the film goes on with one endless naval battle topping another with more stuff added in with huge cliffs and then fire bombs and then Spartan armies joining in. Each battle sequence in the first film felt fresh and different, but here, it felt like we were getting more of the same each time but with an added bonus, and that was a problem.
Whilst this sequel wasn’t in any means crushingly disappointing like Kick-Ass 2, which too had a similar problem by having a new director taking over the helm, it certainly doesn’t match the hyper-stylised antics of the first film. Certainly, Eva Green’s mesmerising performance is reason enough to give this a go.