Monday, March 10, 2014

"300: Rise of an Empire" (2014)

Starring Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green and Lena Headey
Written by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad
Directed by Noam Murro
Rated R - Strong language, nudity, graphic violence (including depictions of rape)
Running Time: 102 Minutes

Ten years prior to the Battle of Thermopylae, a Greek general named Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) did the impossible when he routed Persian forces led by King Darius (Yigal Naor) at the Battle of Marathon. During the battle, Themistocles felled Darius on his ship with an arrow fired from shore. Darius' son, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) witnesses this and grieves for his father. But Darius' most-favored military general, a young Greek woman named Artemesia (Eva Green) twists Darius' last words into a challenge for Xerxes to enact revenge on Greece for the king's death.

In the present, as King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler, appearing in stock footage from the first film) leads his brave 300 to battle Xerxes at Thermopylae, Themistocles rallies a small force of Greek naval vessels to take on Artemesia at sea. Despite being vastly outnumbered, Themistocles uses his guile and tactics to smash apart wave after wave of Artemesia's forces, earning both her respect and her rage.

But Themistocles knows that eventually, Artemesia's numbers will overrun them, and that his brave gambit will come at a terrible price. He has only one hope, and that hope has denied him: that Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey) will commit the full forces of her navy to come to his aid and stop Xerxes and Artemesia from wiping the idea of a free Greece from history.

Zack Snyder's "300," an adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel, was a surprise hit back in 2006. It was not a deep or complex film, but it was stylish, well made and entertaining. It's taken nearly a decade, but a followup film is here, whether it was truly necessary or not. That's the big question that may go unanswered for many in "300: Rise of an Empire" - Did we really need to see this?

Maybe, maybe not. Part of the problem is that the film exists more as a companion tale than a true sequel. Most of the film's running time occurs during the same couple of days that Leonidas and his men are holding off Xerxes at Thermopylae, with only the film's third act taking place afterward and showing some of the result of Leonidas' sacrifice.

What to make of "Rise of an Empire," then? It basically just tells another tale of the same war, and borrows a good amount of the first film's structure in order to do so. We learn Xerxes' backstory, which is actually rather interesting, but otherwise we're just watching another small force take on overwhelming odds in another location.

If one can get over how disposable the story ultimately feels, "Rise of an Empire" is, like its predecessor, a well-made fantasy action film. It just doesn't have quite the impact of that earlier film - the surprise, perhaps, has worn off.

Sullivan Stapleton doesn't grab the screen the same way Gerard Butler did as Leonidas. He does well enough, and he seems more suited for this type of role than his regular TV gig, the Cinemax/Sky action series "Strike Back." He gets to show off his action chops, and he's more than capable there, but there's very little dramatic meat to the role. He gets to shout and fight a lot, which, admittedly, is mostly all Butler did in the first film, too. But somehow, Stapleton just doesn't quite match up.

Rodrigo Santoro is still off to the sidelines for the most part as Xerxes, and the film focuses most of its attention on Artemesia - which is its greatest strength. Eva Green is chewing the scenery, sure, but man does she steal the show here. Vicious, vile, yet somehow still very sexy, Green's Artemesia is easily the best thing about this movie. She's devious, manipulative, and totally awesome. Green owns the screen every second she's on it, even when the script throws her lines a lesser actress would have stumbled over.

Director Noam Murro, whose only other film appears to be a romantic comedy, shows a knack for direction action sequences that are cool and easy to follow. The film's many fight sequences never get lost in cameras that are too shaky or edits that are too fast. While the film visually looks rather a bit like the first "300," it also feels more grounded and real. There are fewer fantasy elements this time around, which makes their rare appearance stand out somewhat awkwardly - the hunchback Ephialtes, for example, feels wholly out of place in his handful of scenes.

If you were a fan of the first film, or of Starz' "Spartacus" series, you'll probably find enjoyment in "300: Rise of an Empire." Newcomers to either may wonder both what the hell is going on and what the big deal is. The story feels disposable, and the characters lack depth. But with some cool action sequences and a scene-stealing performance from Eva Green, there's fun to be had there.

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