By Gary Dowell
Believe it or not, the pseudo-sequel 300: Rise of an Empire manages to one-up its predecessor. Well, in the sense that it’s even more gratuitous, over-the-top, and fetishistic than Zack Snyder’s stylistic adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the 300 Spartan warriors who held an invading Persian army of thousands at bay at the Battle of Thermopylae. Rise of an Empire (also based on a graphic novel by Miller), slavishly adheres to Snyder’s 300 without bringing anything new to the bloodbath, or even adequately imitating it.
Narrated in overly portentous tones by 300′s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey, slumming it between seasons of Game of Thrones), Rise opens with a quickie rundown of the Battle of Marathon during which Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) kills the emperor of the Persian Empire, Darius, and sets off a chain of events that leads to a young Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) declaring himself a god-king and embarking on a second invasion of the fledgling Greek democracy. (Because, y’know, this time it’s personal.) At his side is his formidable admiral Artemisia (Eva Green), a bloodthirsty Greek woman who turned her back on her people after the rape and murder of her family.
The gist of the movie plays out like the first 300 on water, as Themistocles assembles a small but determined fleet to take on the larger and allegedly superior Persian navy, with side trips to keep the Greek city-states united, convince the politically ambivalent Spartans and their six-pack abs to stay in the fight, and engage in a tête-à-tête with Artemisia that somehow devolves into one of the weirdest scenes of rough sex ever filmed. Much of the film takes place concurrently with the events of 300, which it constantly references, reminding us that we could be watching a slightly better movie.
Rise of an Empire carries a whiff of insecurity about it, as if director Noam Murro and writers Kurt Johnstad and Snyder were intimidated by the whole prospect. Everything is bigger, louder, and bloodier (you’ll see more arterial spray here than on a Saturday night in your average ER), but little of it really works. Stapleton is a poor man’s Gerard Butler and utterly lacking in charisma. Due the story structure, Santoro is absent for large chunks of film, and when he is present this ponderously bizarre version of Xerxes offers little more than campy, cartoonish villainy. Green is the only one with a commanding presence and she alone appears to have any fun as she hacks, slashes, struts, and makes out with a freshly severed head (seriously).
Murro does a so-so job of imitating Snyder’s visual aesthetic and speed-ramping technique. Though the results looks diluted and lack the deliberate, almost painterly framing of Larry Fong’s shots in the first film. And then there are the slow-motion shots. Oh, the slo-mo. So much bloody slo-mo. So much that if it were reasonably trimmed it would shorten the running time by a full 20 minutes.
It’s a monotonous, 120-minute slog. Granted, you don’t go into this sort of thing expecting originality — or even coherence — but geez, a bit more effort would have been nice. Instead, we get a Z-grade knock-off of a B-grade cult film with half the style and none of the flair.