Review: 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

Had 300: Rise of an Empire come out a few years ago, I suspect it would have had a greater impact. It’s doing fine at the box office as it stands, but the seven years between its release and the original 300 has dulled the anticipation. I was a fan of the original film, even going so far as to call it the most beautiful action film ever made. But I was also 16 at the time, and 300 gave my adolescent self everything it wanted in a blockbuster. It was violent, stylized, pulpy, masculine, and I hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Flash-forward to the current day and my opinion of 300 has cooled. I still find it a marvellous action film, with fight sequences that remain unrivalled in comic book cinema, but I’m now leery of the film’s machismo and jingoism. 300: Rise of an Empire, the sequel/parallel to 300, amplifies the jingoism and tempers the machismo. It has a better storyline than the original, more concerned with tactics than brutality, but its director Noam Murro lacks the raw talent of Zack Snyder. 300: Rise of an Empire will satisfy fans of the original film, as it satisfied me, but it doesn’t inspire the same cinematic fever as the original.

This time around the hero is Athenian general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), a blue-caped defender of freedom and the “Greek experiment called democracy.” Unlike the Spartans of 300, the Athenians are not well trained or militaristic. They’re a motley crew of actors, politicians, and sculptors. But unlike the Spartans, who prize their own physical prowess above all else, the Athenians are brilliant tacticians. This makes for more strategic battles, where it is Themistokles’ intelligence that bests the greater numbers of the Persian Empire. The battles don’t rely on every Athenian being able to kill 1000 Persians each, even if the film makes it seem as if Themistokles could pull off that impressive feat himself.

Themistokles is a theoretically interesting character. His single-minded devotion to Greece makes him admirable, as does his lack of ego, but as he exists on the screen, he’s a bit of a dud. Sullivan Stapleton is a wooden actor, lacking the charisma and physicality of Gerard Butler. He doesn’t command the screen or chew the scenery in the way this film demands. Luckily, 300: Rise of an Empire is evenly balanced between Themistokles and Artemisia (Eva Green), the Persian naval commander, and while Stapleton doesn’t fill the void left by Butler’s Leonidas, Green more than steps up. She embraces the B-movie madness on display here and steals every scene she’s in.

The film reaches its peak midway through when Themistokles and Artemisia meet for a parlay. Artemisia wants Themistokles to join her as she finds him to be her only true equal. What follows is a duel of sorts, but instead of matching swords, they match sexual prowess. It’s the kind of deranged sex scene you would never see in more conventional Hollywood action films. It’s vulgar and dirty and kind of hilarious, but it also speaks to how the characters approach their roles as commanders; it's as if they are the only ones who truly comprehend each other. Hollywood is so bad at sex scenes it’s almost embarrassing that the 300 sequel delivers one of the more interesting blockbuster sex scenes of the past few years.

In fact, most everything in 300: Rise of an Empire is more interesting than generic Hollywood action films. The action speeds up and slows down. Characters lop off the limbs of their enemies, drenching the screen with digital swashes of blood. Director Noam Murro depends more on the digital camera than Snyder did in 300, or at least is more noticeable in his use of it. Where 300 used the digital camera to string together impossible action sequences and marvel at the violence onscreen, 300: Rise of an Empire sometimes descends into visual chaos reminiscent of a first-person shooter. It’s clear Murro doesn’t have as sure a command of his visuals as Snyder did.

Still, there’s at least a vulgar energy to 300: Rise of an Empire I find preferable to conventional Hollywood action films. While the film has significantly less of an impact than its predecessor, compared to other recent blockbusters it’s still novel and exhilarating.

6 out of 10

300: Rise of an Empire (2014/USA)

Directed by Noam Murro; written by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad based on Xerxes by Frank Miller; starring Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, and Rodrigo Santoro.