300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

Back through the mists of time (2006), I traipsed out to my local ‘cheapie’ theatre to catch a cinematic adaptation of the work of celebrated comic book artist/writer Frank Miller. I was curious about this…’300’… movie, that had just slid onto theatre screens,…and was getting surprisingly admirable ‘word of mouth’. I’d never read the original graphic novel. but was aware of Frank MIller’s pulpy ‘tongue in cheek’ visual style, and how well it could be translated faithfully into something effectively ‘cinematic’, especially after having fallen in love with the sordid and nasty cartoon world of ‘Sin City’ (comics and 1st movie) a year earlier. It also helped that the director, Zack Snyder, had REALLY blown my skirt up with his highly cool remake of 1978’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’. I loved the visual panache and ‘impact’ that he brought to THAT story.
So, with that squarely in mind, I was VERY curious to see what he could pull off with the ‘Inspired by a True Story’ tale of 300 Spartan warriors, led by their frighteningly eager and capable ‘King Leonidas’ (Gerard Butler), who allegedly withstood the onslaught of a vast and determined Persian force, led by a freaky, 10 foot tall sexual-predator ‘God King’ named ‘Xerxes’ ( Rodrigo Santoro). ‘300’ turned out to be pure, pulpy goodness, in my humble opinion. The entire affair is drenched in melo-dramatic cheese, but somehow manages to very competently carry an element of ‘gravity’ in the fantastical ‘telling’ of this supposedly ‘true’ Greek legend of heroic battle. The slick and engrossing ‘look’ nailed home the faithfulness to Frank Miller’s signature style…and ran with it! There isn’t one shot in the WHOLE movie that you couldn’t freeze, print, and mount in a frame. The lighting, the filters, the angles, the use of ‘depth’, and the compositions were all well-thought out by people with a keen sense of visual artistry.
After ‘300’ enjoyed some healthy ‘bank’, carried aloft by mostly favorable reviews…except in Iran, where moronic ‘hard-liners’ were too vocally ignorant to recognize that the ‘Persian’s in the flick are NOT meant to be taken literally, as the narrative of ‘300’ is a macho tale of inspiration being passed down to Greek troops on the eve of battle, hence the sharp exaggerations. But…whatever.
After ‘300’ slipped into the Home Video market, it was generally regarded as something of a visual milestone, something that people remember as being ‘cool’…’cool’ to the point where some of it’s iconic lines (“THIS…IS…SPARTA!!!”) have been solidified as genuine pop culture references.
But that was where it kinda stopped. I heard murmurings a few years back that Frank Miller had gone ahead and wrote a companion piece called ‘Xerxes’, about the marauding Persian ‘God King Dickhead’ and his campaigns…but heard very little about a potential film sequel…especially given how the first flicked ended. But then about a year ago, mention of another ‘300’ movie popped into popular media. I was immediately skeptical.
For starters, Gerard Butler and his overly masculine Army of Abs were a commanding presence, and a memorable one and his name was nowhere to be seen on the teaser material. A tough act to follow. I figured that the first flick was possibly ‘lightning in a bottle’, a one-shot fluke. Anything that followed would probably take the cheap way out and the greedy producers would craft something that belongs in a Walmart Bargain Bin.
However, as the advertising campaign picked up speed, I found myself rooting for it, especially when I heard the Snyder was still attached as a Producer and Co-Writer. This time around, little known Israeli director Noam Murro was ushered into the directors chair. How did he do? Pretty damn well actually.
Before I saw this one, my girlfriend and I opted to do another comparison ‘viewing’, where we watch the original, or the prequel/sequel (like our ‘Robocop’ back-to-back review) with breakfast, then go see the newest incarnation at the local cinema…matinee-style! I was fully prepared to mentally tear into ‘300: Rise of an Empire’, with the first one SO fresh in my mind, but thankfully…there wasn’t TOO much to call out.
Snyder, Murro and Co. have done an interesting thing with this one…quite probably the best direction they could’ve gone in, given the material. They’ve managed to cobble together a prequel, a sequel and a ‘sidequel’ (if such a thing exists). And for the most part…it works. While the events of the first film play out in the ‘peripherals’, we follow the story of an Athenian naval commander named ‘Themistocles’ (Sullivan Stapleton), and his meager navies attempts to hurt the Persian onslaught. His most dangerous foe is a fearsome and psychotic warrior woman named ‘Artemisia’ (a scene-chewing but sexy Eva Green), whom ‘Xerxes’ has placed in command of his vast naval forces. Due to an old grudge, ‘Artemisia’ focuses her aim on ‘Themistocles’, leading to a blood and water soaked fight-to-the-death on the high seas as the two admirals joust and parry for position and opportunity…and not just in battle ; ). That’s essentially the story. Pretty straight forward.
Considering the visual style, which obviously MUST be mentioned, the story doesn’t need to be much more than “Ramming speed!!!”… (row row row)…*CRASH*…”Aagghhh!!!!”…(fight fight fight)…(Over-the top CG blood explodes EVERYWHERE)…REPEAT. Director Murro had his work cut out for him, having to emulate the universe that Snyder and Miller had crafted for the first film and yet, still had to try to give it his own ‘stamp’. In THAT regard, I’d say the man ‘stepped up to plate’.
Having gone straight from the first film, into this one…they’re almost seamlessly interchangeable, especially when you consider the side-by side nature of the stories.There are some REALLY nice shots in this movie, once again some very artistic and cool uses of composition, lighting and ‘camera speed’ are put on kinetic display. This one actually felt a bit more ‘tangible’ to me than the first one. But I suppose that’s easily excusable when you considered that the story of ‘300’ was a rousing tale being told by ‘Dilios’ (David Wenham…reprising his one-eyed Spartan role from the original).
The casting also helped elevate the status of this potential-piece-of-shit sequel. Besides David Wenham, we also get Lena Headey returning as ‘Queen Gorgo’, Rodrigo Santoro back as ‘Xerxes’, and Andrew Tiernan stepping back up as the traitorous hunchback ‘Ephialtes’. The return of these familiar faces certainly did help further legitimize it’s claim as a genuine sequel.
The most interesting addition, as casting goes, is Eva Green (Casino Royale) as the psychotically ambitious admiral ‘Artemisia’. She is a force to be reckoned with here. And she has great boobs! Just sayin. But in all seriousness, every time she was onscreen, she was chewing the living shit outta the scenery…and clearly having a wonderful time doing it. There’s a notable sequence in which she lays a big ole smooch on a freshly decapitated head…and you just go with it (at least, I did). They nicely establish that ‘Artemisia’ is one pissed off, crazy bitch who you wouldn’t want to turn your back on. Green’s zest for the role is clear and she is definitely a high point in this bloody tale.
Speaking of blood, they stay in keeping with the whole ‘exaggerated blood sprays’ motif…only taking advantage of up-to-date effects to really fill them out. The ‘blood’ looks gushy, thick and kinda nasty…for CG. Normally I hate CG blood effects (boo, hiss!)…but here they seem right at home. There was one effect that wasn’t quite as ‘at home’ as it wanted to be, and that was the strange, intrusive ‘water spray on the lens’ effect they slapped over (seemingly) every shot that took place on a boat…of which there were many. My GF and I put our heads together in the darkness…and both determined that the effect was just a bad idea. It was actually something of a detriment, as it seemed to mask or dilute portions of the screen that I feel should’ve been left clear and pretty.
One observation the pretty woman at my side made was of the lack of underlying weirdness, and when I thought about it, she had a good point. One of the key aspects that always resonates for me about the original are the traces of the ‘bizarre’ and ‘other-worldly’ scattered throughout. Elements like the giant mutant Executioner, the creepy ‘goat’ musician or mammoth ‘berserker’ added to the ‘legendary’ and ‘fantastical’ qualities that helped ‘300’ pleasantly take viewers by surprise. The filmmakers kept audiences on their toes by tantalizing them with these hints of a much grander and bizarre world…and in doing so, left ‘things’ with a sense of slight ‘unease’, which I think worked superbly. This one offers up two (admittedly cool) sea serpents (which were probably just figments of a momentarily delirious mind)…and not much else. Most of what we see is exaggerated ‘reality’…’The Fantastic’ in this one could be seen as ‘fact-inspired’…just greatly expanded and embellished, Not COMPLETELY invented.
Speaking of ‘invention’, it must be said that ‘they’ decided to go for broke when it came to interesting and brutal ways to ‘off’ characters during the plethora of vicious battle sequences. Many highly stylized ‘Eeeewwwwww!!!’ and “Aaghhh!!!”-moments ensued.
All in all, ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ was a good sequel thingy to the first film. If you liked ‘300’, this’ll probably do the trick for ya. It’s storytelling isn’t as tight or concise as it could’ve been, but if you want ‘over-the top’…well…everything, with generous doses of sex and bloody violence sprinkled everywhere, bolstered by another (mostly) terrific visual style and atmospheric musical score…this flick will get the blood pumpin!!
PS-We saw it in 3D and for the most part, the extra $3 was worth it. Some cool effects rear their ugly heads and work well in the ‘medium’.

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