300: Rise of an Empire.
As an immense Persian army totaling in the hundreds of thousands descends on Greece, Persian God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) prepares for a complete and utter takeover. While Leonidas, the King of Sparta, and his personal guard of 300 Spartans look to bottle up the Persian forces at Thermopylae, an Athenian general, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), is desperately trying to unite the Greek city states in hopes of mounting a defensive effort. His plan is to take on the gigantic Persian navy with a limited navy supplied by the city states, but even the thought of victory will require a creative defensive plan, relying on guts and some luck too. Themistocles' hopeful victory seems desperate at best, especially when the Persian navy is commanded by a powerful female warrior, Artemisia (Eva Green), with Greek blood who wants nothing more than to lead her forces to a decisive victory.
So yeah, I loved 2006's 300. I loved the graphic novel-like look, loved the characters, the over-the-top, bloody action, and I've always been a sucker for sword and sandal epics. It is and was an all-around winner. Naturally, I had to give this follow-up from director Noam Murro a shot, with 300 director Zack Snyder co-writing the script with Kurt Johnstad based on a still to be released graphic novel from Frank Miller. So why isn't it a sequel? The story in 'Empire' is actually going on as the events with Leonidas and the 300 Spartans are transpiring. 'Empire' is based off the real-life historical battle of Salamis (<----obvious p="" spoilers="">
When '300' was first released, it's visual look resembling a graphic novel adaptation was completely new. It tweaked a familiar formula with some incredibly graphic -- if cartoonish -- violence shown in stylish, slow motion battle scenes. Now eight years later, it doesn't play like it is so original. The story is never dull, but it also never managed to pull me in like its predecessor. Buff, bearded hero to lead the way? Check. Some hard-edged, angry motivational speeches about loyalty and fighting and patriotism? Double and triple check. There's a pretty graphic sex scene -- Stapleton and Green absolutely going at it -- in the vein of the first movie, and a character subplot of a Greek warrior worrying about his hopeful warrior son is plucked right from the original. It's not bad. It's just not that good either. Too familiar, doesn't create enough of its own identity.
It's weird to think of it now, but back in 2006, Gerard Butler and Michael Fassbender (making his film debut) were far from big stars. 'Empire' tries that route again, going down the route of casting relatively unknown actors to fill the major roles. Stepping into the main heroic warrior role is Stapleton (Gangster Squad, Animal Kingdom) as real-life Athenian general Themistocles. It's a part not quite as good as what Butler did in bringing Spartan leader Leonidas to life, but it's still pretty good. He delivers an impassioned, fiery pre-battle speech pretty well too, a requirement for the part because there's at least three or four of them. The problem becomes the rest of the Greeks. They just aren't especially memorable beyond Themistocles. There's also Callan Mulvey as Scyllias, Themistocles' right-hand man, a capable warrior and even a spy, who's also worrying about his son, Callisto (Jack O'Connell), who so desperately wants to be a famed Greek warrior. Also watch for Hans Matheson as Aeskylos, a warrior who looks worried a lot.
By far the best thing about 'Empire' is Eva Green as the badass, ass-kicking Greek woman turned Persian naval commander Artemisia. As she's shown in Casino Royale and looks like she'll show again later this summer in the Sin City sequel, Green is one tough actress who can hold her own with the guys. That's on display anytime she's on-screen here. This is one nasty character, cold-blooded and full of hate and vengeance. Too often female characters are thrown into action movies....well, just because, but Green is a scene-stealer each and every time she is on-screen. An excellent part.
Beyond Green's performance, the best thing about 'Empire' unfortunately is mostly the nods to its predecessor. We get snippets here, a brief scene here of Leonidas and his last stand at Thermopylae. We learn how Santoro's Xerxes become a god-king in a cool flashback narrated by Leonidas' wife and queen of Sparta, Gorgo (played by Lena Headey). Along with Santoro and Headey, also look for returning stars David Wenham as wounded Spartan warrior Dilios, Andrew Tiernan as treacherous hunchback Ephialtes and Peter Mensah -- last seen being kicked into the Hole of Death -- as a key person from Atermisia's past. Fans of the original 300 will get a kick out of these touches, but when a movie is struggling to forge its own identity, these touches prove distracting. You're thinking about the other film, not the one you're watching.
Yes, the naval battles are pretty cool as Themistocles unleashes his outnumbered strategy on the attacking Persian forces. The action scenes were never in question, full of slashing swords, thrown spears and lots and lots of flying blood filling the screen. These scenes lack that emotion, that effectiveness that '300' had in abundance. Cool to watch, but there's not that special quality. Professionally done, but unfortunately 'Empire' is lacking that one special thing, that feeling that permeates throughout the entire movie. A disappointing end result.
300: Rise of an Empire (2014): **/****----obvious>