Stunning Visuals, Eva Green Make '300: Rise of an Empire' Worthwhile
by Jeremy Kirk
March 7, 2014
Even with middle-of-the-road reviews and decent box office, a sequel to 300 always seemed inevitable. The art of Frank Miller's comic book brought to cinematic life by director Zack Snyder with all the slow motion and speed ramping he could muster seemed justified enough for a follow-up. That sequel is 300: Rise of an Empire, and though Snyder isn’t sitting in the director’s chair this time around, the trademark look and feel of his 300 is present in every frame. That’s not all. Despite the familiar look, and the all-too familiar narrative points we have to go back over, 300: Rise of an Empire also has a familiar way of kicking the audience’s ass, loading the screen with epic battles brought to life this time around with the very best in digital effects hard at work. That’s to say nothing of the awesome villainy on display from Eva Green.
Playing much like a 300 naval expansion pack, the film moves the Persia-versus-Greece action from the rocky shores to the even rockier waters just off those shores. The "Battle of Artemisium" occurred simultaneously with King Leonidas of Sparta leading his troops through the Hot Gates to face King Xerxes. As that battle waged on, the Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and his soldiers held the Persian navy, led by Xerxes' adopted sister, Artemisia (that awesome role Eva Green fills), at bay. Politics and familial drama played its part in these events, and the film develops all of this for us. But all of that has presence here only to beef up what we’re more interested in, the bloody slashing and dashing, gory slicing and dicing of it all. Thankfully, 300: Rise of an Empire realizes this all too well.
While 300 ended at a point where a sequel would surely be loaded with stylistic blood and violence, the sequel chooses to flesh out the events surrounding the first story rather than carry on from its end. The story, adapted by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad from Miller’s unpublished graphic novel Xerxes, moves in, out, and around the timeline established in the first film. It does a fine job balancing between old characters and new, with returning players like Lena Headey as Leonidas' queen Gorgo and David Wenham as the sole surviving member of the brave 300 Spartans, have a major hand in allowing this to feel all the more organic. Rodrigo Santoro back as Xerxes, who gets more of a backstory than expected, is another plus.
However, the decisions made in terms of structure hurt this film's pacing as much as they help the series' expansion. While the returning players are pleasant familiarities to help us easily reconnect with this world, that side of the story adds little in terms of stakes or exposition. In fact, knowing King Leonidas' army is challenging that of Xerxes as the events in Rise of an Empire transpire takes some of the wind out of the film's sails, to use a seaworthy analogy. Themistocles basically says flat out that their just biding their time until the 300 Spartans are dead, a foregone conclusion to the characters in this story. The suspense isn't pouring off the screen, nor do the dozen or so speeches about honor or freedom or a "new age" help. Rise of an Empire has something else up its sleeve to keep the audience's interest afloat. Okay, last one.
Key among the merits laid at this film's feet are its incredibly stylized action and pretty breathtaking visual effects. The world is very much in the same vein as the first film. Director Noam Murro has that Zack Snyder look pegged down. But Rise of an Empire is surprisingly more than just another another series of stylistic battles which take place in this colorful, surreal world. It's not a lot more, but every little bit helps.
There were significant moments of action in the first 300 littered throughout, and the beauty of the comic book world Snyder put to film was one of the deciding factors in making that film a success. That and the badass action. And the abs. 300: Rise of an Empire has all of that, as well, but digital effects have improved greatly since the first film's release in 2007. Either that or much more money was spent on the technology this time around. Regardless of cause, the effects in Rise of an Empire are phenomenal, and each action set piece is another in a long series of awesome images. The speed-ramping technique, or slowing down the action to observe it better, was crudely used in 300, attempting to create a pace with the battles. Here, Murro uses the technique to freeze stunning visuals in their places. 300: Rise of an Empire has far more exhilaration from certain single shots than anything the first film offered.
Something else it has is a wicked antagonist and a damn fine actress giving her style. Rise of an Empire's Artemisia seeks vengeance against the Greeks, and her hatred for the country and its people shows with every bloody chop and every flaming arrow she delivers. Eva Green exudes as much energy in the passion she gives her character as the film gives us in its imagery. A warning sign hanging around her neck—DO NOT TOUCH—would have been appropriate.
Much of the cast here is able, Stapleton taking over the lead role from Gerard Butler with about as much inflated heroism but slightly smaller abs. Stapleton is fine here, delivering those speeches with the suitable decibels and leading a charge with a suitable war-cry. He's no match for Green, though, and the key scene the two share here, peace negotiations that turn violently sexual quickly, is a high point for strangeness.
It is suitably Frank Miller, though, a description that defines 300: Rise of an Empire. Massive and bloody battles, naked skin hitting you from all sides, and a bunch of goofy dialogue about nobility and whatnot. These are the elements that make up the 300 saga, hit or miss. Rise of an Empire trumps its predecessor in the action department with glorious CG-created worlds and epic-scale battles doing wonders before our eyes. It's great to look at, not too awe-inspiring to think about. Unless you're thinking about Eva Green's performance, in which case you're probably terrified right now.
Jeremy's Rating: 7 out of 10
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