Film Review: 300: Rise of an Empire

Marching to the same beat as its predecessor, this belated follow-up delivers even more visual excess and brain-deadening bloodshed. Those who will find this fulfilling already know who they are.

Remember the Athenians in 2007’s surprise blockbuster 300? They were the Greeks who preferred to stay in the background while Spartan King Leonidas led his legendary 300 warriors to certain martyrdom against thousands of invading Persians. At some point before he died, Leonidas dismissed the men of his neighboring Greek city-state as “philosophers and boy lovers.” Remember them now?

Even if you do, you probably won’t recognize the Athenians of Rise of an Empire, many of whom prove to be men of most extreme action—not unlike those mighty Spartans. As we learn here, the Athenians did their own heroic part against the Persian invasion, by taking the fight to the open sea. That watery grave is but a cosmetic switch-up for this slaughter-fest, in which director Noam Murro hews closely to the narrative ebb and flow of the original film, following a script co-written by 300 director Zack Snyder—who has adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel Xerxes. Miller, of course, is the one who started it all with his earlier graphic novel, 300. But let’s just remember that the Greeks and Persians are the ones who really started it all, some 2,500 years ago. Which isn’t to say that this film is any sort of history lesson.

To clarify: This isn’t a sequel, nor is it a prequel. Call it a companion piece. The time is still 480 B.C—the same few days during which the events of 300 took place. In fact, the sieges of the two films are happening more or less at the same time. Narratively that’s the most interesting aspect of this chapter of the legend. Otherwise, there isn’t a lot of what could be called plot. Mostly, it’s just wave after wave of battle, with ships crashing into each other, and massive numbers of stuntmen hacking at each other with swords, spears, battle axes and other heavy metal. Limbs are severed. Heads decapitate. Blood spews and splatters and erupts like Old Faithful. Some of this is spectacular. The rest is overkill.

Just when you’re starting to lose feeling in your face, there is an occasional lull in the butchery, during which the two navies retreat to neutral corners, where they exchange macho war-mongering epithets and platitudes. In 300, this was where Gerard Butler, as Leonidas, got to do most of his acting, exhorting his men to give their lives for honor, glory and Sparta. Here, however, the speechifying is more humdrum and argumentative. All carrying themselves with a similar, solemn certitude, the Athenians, “philosophers” that they are, don’t exactly agree on how to fight off the big, bad Persians. This gets numbing too.

Things are more interesting on the Persian side, where flashbacks show us how King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) ascended to the throne after his father was killed in battle by Athenian leader Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) ten years earlier. Why it took Xerxes a whole decade to mount another attack is never explained—or maybe that part of Lena Headey’s ongoing voiceover narration was drowned out by the overall din. In any case, that lag time gives the film plenty of room to recount how sensitive young Xerxes went off to the desert and into a dark cavern, where he took a dip in a magic pool that transformed him into the gilded, manscaped, Marlene Dietrich-eyebrowed “god-king” he is today.

This is also where we meet Xerxes’ second-in-command, Artemisia (Eva Green), born Greek but seething with vengeful rage, having watched Greek soldiers slaughter her family, after which she was made a much-manhandled slave for the rest of her childhood. By far the fiercest Persian warrior, she’s also the wiliest. It is she who taunts, goads and bitch-slaps Xerxes into action. Part temptress, part Lady Macbeth, all mass murderer, she seems to have Xerxes on invisible puppet strings. “War,” she stage-whispers from the wings, while Xerxes orates from a mountaintop. “War!” he echoes to a CGI cast of thousands.

Green plays all this with great relish and a flair for fine-tuned camp. She doesn’t kid this role; she luxuriates in it. She’s got all the best lines, and they just roll off her tongue. Prepping her forces for battle, she decrees, “Tonight you will dance on the backs of dead Greeks!” The glint in her eye is as fierce as her line reading is delicious. She’s more lifelike than anyone around her, even if she is rather larger than life. Whether Artemisia is throwing herself at Themistokles during a private summit meeting that evolves into wild, half-naked, R-rated sex, or throwing herself into battle, swinging swords in both hands, she is also the film’s most compelling action figure. Green easily steals the film from an ensemble of actors who often seem dwarfed by the CGI world all around them. Indeed, there are times, when kings and pawns alike are leaping great distances through the air, that they look suspiciously like videogame creations.

Interestingly, it is Lena Headey, the one other female of note in the cast, who gives the film’s only other full-bodied, fully felt performance. And this in her relatively few scenes, reprising her 300 role as Sparta’s Queen Gorgo, who spends most of the film insisting that Sparta has sacrificed enough and that this is somebody else’s problem now—until she essentially says screw it, and picks up her late husband’s sword. Seeing her in action makes you wish that she, not Themistokles, got to fight the climactic sword battle with Artemisia. That wouldn’t have redeemed this bludgeoning, deafening bloodbath—but it sure would have made it easier to sit through.