300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sustained Sequences of Stylized Bloody Violence Throughout, a Sex Scene, Nudity and some Language

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Directed by: Noam Murro

Written by: Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad

(based on the graphic novel XERXES by Frank Miller)

Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey & David Wenham

There’s no beating around the bush. 300 was a revolutionary film in sheer visual style. It was an admittedly historically inaccurate war film that focused on grandiose visuals and insane amounts of gratuitous violence. 300 was a blast and has garnered a rather large fan base. It’s odd that seven years later near the anniversary of the first 300, a sequel with the subtitle RISE OF AN EMPIRE is hitting multiplexes and sure to be a huge hit. This second installment manages to recapture the style of the first and stumbles in other areas.

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RISE OF AN EMPIRE is set before, during, and after the Battle of Thermopylae (the main event in the previous entry). It begins with the Battle of Marathon, where the story introduces our main protagonist: Themistocles. The film then goes on to show Xerxes rising into power, but there is also another antagonist introduced. This is the vicious female commander named Artemisia. Xerxes declares war on Greece and Artemisia commands his naval fleets. Themistocles isn’t going to idly stand by and tries to unite with Sparta (who have already headed to their three-day battle witnessed in the first film). Now with a massive enemy on the Aegean Sea, the Athenians must use ingenuity to keep their freedom and defeat the Persians. Lots of violence, bloodshed, and destruction ensues.

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Just like the first 300, the visuals are nothing short of stunning in RISE OF AN EMPIRE. There’s plenty of slow-motion to go around and the battle sequences are impressive to say the least. If I didn’t know any better I would have said that Zack Snyder had returned to direct this sequel. That’s a huge compliment towards Noam Murro, whose only other directorial endeavor thus far is the dramedy SMART PEOPLE. It’s odd that a huge studio like Warner Brothers would entrust the second installment in a possible franchise to a relative newcomer, but stranger things have happened. Though most of the visual aspects are downright jaw-dropping, there were moments (especially near the end) that felt like I was watching a video game. Good use of CGI should never take the viewer out of the action in a movie like this, but that’s exactly what these brief scenes did. The blood also had a distinctly different look this time around that took a little getting used to.

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One thing I really dug about RISE OF AN EMPIRE was how nicely the story tied in the first film with the events happening here. History already links them, but it was nice to see familiar faces reappear and scenes that directly connected the two. As big as some of the problems are, RISE OF AN EMPIRE makes for a nice double-feature of mayhem with the first 300. As the main villainess, Eva Green delivers a show-stopping performance. She rises to the occasion of being the scariest female character I think I’ve ever seen in a big budget blockbuster. Green is insane and definitely stands tall as the best thing about this sequel.

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Sadly this isn’t the case with the actor playing Themistocles. Sullivan Stapleton (GANGSTER SQUAD) lacks the charisma that Gerard Butler did so well as King Leonidas. There are some overly familiar plot threads too. In the first 300, there was a father-son relationship between two of the Spartan soldiers done pretty well. In RISE OF AN EMPIRE, another father-son relationship plays out with opposite results. It felt clichéd in that we had seen pretty much the exact same thing play out in the previous film. Also those supposedly invincible assassins known as the Immortals (that posed such a huge threat in the first film and provided one of the best scenes in that entire film) were regulated to CGI constructed inconveniences towards the climax.

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These deadly warriors also served as the punch line to a weird comic relief joke that seemed inappropriate given the tone of the rest of the film. Speaking of which, words like “shit” and “fuck” didn’t even exist back in ancient Greece. Every time a swear word was uttered, it was a bit distracting. I am well aware this is a piece of historical fiction, but the use of modern language in a period piece seems silly. Imagine if one if the Spartans gave high-fives or fist-pumps him after a kill. It would be just plain annoying. That’s exactly how these curse words sounded in this context.

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300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE ups the ante in the violence, sex, and gore department, but doesn’t have a strong enough story to live up to the original. It’s cliché for a film critic to compare a sequel to the original. Seeing RISE OF AN EMPIRE is a direct follow-up to 300, this is completely warranted. Eva Green steals the show as Artemisia, but Sullivan Stapleton doesn’t come off as a particularly interesting hero. The effects range from awesome to passable and the blood is so frequently thrown around that it constantly seems to get on the camera. This is not Sparta! It’s just Athens. 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is a decent enough sequel, but nowhere near as fun or awesome as its predecessor!

Grade: B-

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