Saturday, March 08, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire / *** (R)

Themistocles: Sullivan Stapleton
Artemisia: Eva Green
Queen Gorgo: Lena Headey
Aesyklos: Hans Matheson
Calisto: Jack O’Connell
Scyllias: Callan Mulvey
Xerxes: Rodrigo Santoro
Ephialtes: Andrew Tiernan
King Darius: Igal Naor

Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures present a film directed by Noam Murro. Written by Zach Snyder & Kurt Johnstad. Based on the graphic novel “Xerxes” by Frank Miller. Running time: 104 min. Rated R (for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language).

I often have a hard time reconciling my opinion with a film when I find it to be better than expected. As such, my thoughts on the long awaited sequel to Zach Snyder’s “300” might be a bit skewed toward the positive. “300” was one of my favorite films of the Oughts. Its long delayed sequel “300: Rise of an Empire” never promised to be as good as the original. The trailers did little to make the film look good or necessary in any way. Production and release delays also did not bode well for the film’s quality. But now it’s here, and despite the fact that it is a pale shadow of its predecessor, it’s actually fairly effective as a companion piece, if not as a stand-alone action epic.

“Rise of an Empire” is not exactly a sequel, but rather a prequel and sequel in one. It sets up the original movie and continues the storyline beyond the events depicted in that one. As such, it’s helpful to be familiar with the events of “300” to follow those of this installment. Like the original, this prequel/sequel is based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller. It begins with an origin story of Xerxes, the Persian God King who invades Greece and is the primary antagonist of the first film.

Despite this origin story, Xerxes takes a supporting role in this film. The hero is Themistocles, an Athenian who is partially responsible for the rise of Xerxes by firing the arrow that fell his father, King Darius. Darius’s greatest general, Artemisia, is the person responsible for the rest of Xerxes’s origin. A Greek born woman, Artemisia leads the Persian navy in a revenge crusade against the Greeks for being responsible for the deaths of her family and a childhood as a sex slave. Artemisia plants the seed that leads Xerxes to become the God King and sets herself up to be his chief emissary in delivering the death blow to the Greeks.

Meanwhile in Greece, the politicians are at odds with how to deal with the Persian threat and in the throes of attempting to unite the Grecian city-states into a unified country. Themistocles warns that a united Greece is essential to defeating the Persian threat and approaches the Spartans for their help before the events of the first film take place. The Spartans have no interest in a united Greece and chose to face the Persian Army on their own. Themistocles returns to the coast to face the Navy having failed to unite any of the city-states. He must rely on his strategic cunning and a small fleet of ships and soldiers at his command to hold off the entire Persian Navy until the Spartans either turn away the God King or die as martyrs, providing the inspiration for the city-states to join as one nation.

That’s an awful lot of plot for a movie that is first and foremost about highly stylized bloody action. Noam Murro’s direction isn’t as crisp and clean as Snyder’s. This sequel is less like the comic book come to life than a copycat attempt to reproduce the testosterone fueled action sequences of the original. Still there are some beautiful bloody moments captured here. Murro has Snyder’s slow motion action style down. His warriors aren’t quite as idealized physically as Snyder’s Spartans, and that’s by design. These men aren’t the Spartans. They’re merely farmers. Well, I wouldn’t want to run into one of these “farmers” in a darkened New York City alley.

Much of the action takes place on the sea, and despite the exaggerated style of the action, it’s fun to see how innovative the sea faring fighting tactics of these ancient ages might’ve been, at least at a fantasy level. For being such a nautical genius, Artemisia sure is willing to throw her men into some pretty obvious traps from her underpowered opponent, however. But then again, a movie experience like this one isn’t really about criticing the strategic prowess of an obviously made up female villain such as Artemisia. The sex scene between her and Themistocles, however pointless as a tactical maneuver, gets more to the point of this particular exercise.

The film is an exploration in power, more the power of the moving image than the power of skillful writing. This is a movie where men flex their muscles and the women do too. Don’t think that Queen Gorgo from the first film doesn’t get into the testosterone-laden action either. Reprised by Lena Headey, Gorgo is ready for some revenge over her husband’s severed head by the end of it all. Of course, the masculinity of these women and the half-naked men throughout will still call into question the true purpose of this adventure, much as it did the first “300”, but that kind of plays into the fun of it all as well.

Certainly, “300: Rise of an Empire” won’t be going into anyone’s best sequels list, but it achieves what it aims for pretty well. It’s purpose will only be for a fairly limited audience. That audience will get a little more than they were promised, however. The story does a surprising job of filling in any gaps left by the first film and still leaves room for yet another sequel. I don’t know if Miller wrote any other “300” related comic books, and I doubt if any continuation of this series will really be able to provide anything else of value, but this one did better than this critic expected. I’m still hoping that Miller’s upcoming “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is even more satisfying at capturing the success of its predecessor.

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