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Playing the most vicious, and certainly sexiest, naval commander ever to ride the waves of the Aegean, Eva Green has a one-for-the-ages scene in 300: Rise of an Empire, in which she decapitates an adversary with two deft sword strokes, then, holding his head by the hair, kisses him on the mouth with pointedly derisive hunger. Given his condition, the man does not respond but, given the bestower, it wouldn’t have been surprising if he had … just a bit.
Other than for the pleasure of watching Green try to conquer ancient Greece dressed as a distant forebearer of Catwoman, more is less and a little late in this long-aborning sequel to the 2007 bloodbath that was stylistically extreme and just different enough from anything else in its field to become an international action sensation. Centering on mostly aquatic battles that historically took place simultaneously to the Battle of Thermopylae so fancifully depicted in the earlier film, this follow-up slavishly adheres to the graphic comics-meet-video games look of the original. It would be a mild surprise if box-office results equaled those of the original, which came to $456 million worldwide (slightly more from foreign than domestic tills), but most fans will still probably want to check it out.
Although Gerard Butler‘s star has significantly fallen due to the 17 mediocre films he’s made since 300, he’s missed here; his replacement at the top of the sequel’s cast, Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton, just can’t bellow on a par with Butler, whose cocky, over-the-top abandon and staunch physical presence leave big sandals to fill. Visually, there was clearly a mandate to hew close to the original’s look. All the same, it’s disappointing that, after all the years, no effort has been made to augment or riff on the style at all; in fact, the new film is more monochromatic and duller in appearance, lacking the bold reds and rich earth tones that are glimpsed here in brief visits to Sparta and the events at Thermopylae.
Original director Zack Snyder, who moved on to the Superman franchise at Warner Bros., turned the directing reins over to Israeli commercials ace Noam Murro, whose previous feature was the 2008 independent Smart People. However, Snyder stayed around to co-produce and adapt Frank Miller‘s graphic novel Xerxes along with returning co-scripter Kurt Johnstad. Other top creative personnel are different, which hasn’t prevented the sequel from sporting the same bombastic, slo-mo, blood-in-your-face aesthetic.
Narrated by Lena Headey‘s Spartan Queen Gorgo, Rise looks at the Persian invasion of Greece, in the late summer of 480 B.C., from a different angle than did the land-based 300, concentrating on the purported 1,000-ship fleet that King Xerxes expected would have an easy time conquering the divided Greeks. It also provides some nifty illustrated backstory tidbits; that the arrow that killed Persian King Darius was fired by Themistokles (Stapleton), that Artemisia (Green) is a Greek who turned on her own people for what they did to her and her family, and that Xerxes (the returning Rodrigo Santoro), in a vividly illustrated sequence, had himself transformed from man to golden god (who resembles a walking advertisement for a Beverly Hills jewelry store) so he could exact revenge for his father’s death by conquering the Greeks once and for all.
So while Spartan King Leonidas keeps Xerxes occupied at the “hot gates,” the non-aristocratic soldier-politician Themistokles dares to engage the mighty Persian navy with a far smaller force, but with much shrewdness. Although he’s managed to patch together a coalition of Greek states to try to ward off the Persians’ assault, his repeated attempts to persuade Sparta to join in are rebuffed by Gorgo, who insists that her city-state does not share the Athenian dream of a united Greece.
But in 300 — or is it 600 now? — 2,500-year-old geopolitics takes a back seat to ranting speeches, ripped torsos, manly-manness and the spurting, spilling and splashing blood, which is often aimed strategically at the viewer for maximum 3D effect. When Greeks wade into battle jumping from ship to ship, the film slips way over into video game mode as Themistokles, the father-son team of Scyllias and Calisto (Callan Mulvey and Jack O’Connell) and others implausibly cut through hordes of opponents with little trouble.
For much of the time, the Greeks have luck on their side, and director Murro and his team clearly visualize how low clouds and fog hide the straits into which the home team induces the invaders to unwittingly enter. They also show how the outnumbered locals effectively use a circling strategy to disrupt the Persians’ attack mode, sending many to a watery grave.
To be an unsuccessful subordinate to Artemisia is not an enviable position; her punishments, as we’ve seen, are most creative. But as her opponents’ successes mount, the imperious warrior develops an admiration — and maybe something more — for Themistokles’ skills. Implausibly, he accepts her invitation for a shipboard summit, at which their intense enmity crosses the line into craven lust, resulting in a contest of rough and varied sex that leaves them both with a heightened sense of competitiveness. That she doesn’t kill him afterward like a praying mantis seems entirely out of character.
Although Themistokles’ inspirational speech to his dwindling supply of troops is nowhere near as rousing as Leonidas’ was before the Spartans’ last stand in 300, the result in the Straits of Salamis is quite the opposite. In their final armed face-off, Artemisia takes the opportunity to insult Themistokles’ lovemaking skills, but he has the last laugh.
If Rise proves to be anywhere near as successful as its progenitor, one or perhaps two films could follow that would be set in the following year, 479 B.C., when the united Greeks, this time with Spartan help, put an end once and for all to Persian dreams of local conquest with same-day land and sea victories at Plataea and Mycale, respectively.
More than in the original, it’s often easy to tell where the small foreground sets occupied by the actors end and the digitally created backgrounds begin. The score by Junkie XL is predictably orotund, although some unusual and arresting moments emerge here and there.
Production: Cruel and Unusual Films, Mark Canton/Gianni Nunnari Productions
Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, Andrew Tiernan, Igal Naor, Andrew Pleavin
Director: Noam Murro
Screenwriters: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel Xerxes by Frank Miller
Producers: Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Zack Snyder, Bernie Goldman
Executive producers: Thomas Tull, Frank Miller, Stephen Jones, Craig J. Flores, Jon Jashni
Director of photography: Simon Duggan
Production designer: Patrick Tatopoulos
Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne
Editors: Wyatt Smith, David Brenner
Music: Junkie XL
Visual effects supervisors: Richard Hollander, John ‘DJ’ Desjardin
Rated R, 103 minutes
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