In June 2008, producers Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton and Bernie Goldmann revealed that work had begun on a sequel to 300. Legendary Pictures announced that Frank Miller was writing a follow-up graphic novel and Zack Snyder was interested in returning to the director’s chair – although he eventually dropped out to helm Superman reboot Man Of Steel. Noam Murro stepped aboard as director instead, with Snyder producing.
During pre-production, the project was titled 300: Battle Of Artemisium (although this was widely mis-reported as “Battle Of Artemisia”); the film was retitled 300: Rise Of An Empire in September 2012.
Although it probably works just as well as its predecessor – being another serving of slo-mo ultraviolence and showy camerawork – this seems a lot sillier than Snyder’s movie, perhaps because it takes itself a lot more seriously.
Working from a script by the original 300 team of Miller, Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, Murro (Smart People) inherits the first film’s gold-dipped, speed-ramped camerawork and its penchant for heroic largesse. But Rise Of An Empire lacks Snyder’s shrewd deconstruction of cartoonish hagiography, undermining the glorious, robust escapism of testosterone-fuelled historical re-enactment with an underdog story that feels almost too reflective to be rousing.
Taking place concurrently with the first film, Murro’s film stars Sullivan Stapleton (TV’s Strike Back) as Themistocles, an Athenian general who resorts to battling Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his conquering Persian armies only after exhausting all efforts to unite Greece as a democratic nation. Refused help from Sparta by Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), Themistocles assembles a small army of free men and employs naval strategy to impede the Persians from striking land. But after finding his ranks decimated by the sheer volume of forces being controlled by Artemisia (Eva Green), Persia’s most formidable general, Themistocles begins to reconsider the actual cost to his men – and to his country – of pursuing a so-called noble death.
Murro presents Themistocles’ wartime position as a counterpoint to Leonidas’ in the first film, as he champions democratic ideals, agonises over the prospect of sending free men to war, and sees little glory in their deaths. Oddly, the very respectability of that narrative choice tends to undermine the gritty enjoyment of watching people get dismembered in spectacular slow motion. That said, the helmer matches his predecessor’s sense of bloody camp blow for cringe-inducing blow, with a hugely memorable centrepiece sex scene between Themistocles and Artemisia that’s kind of hilariously “empowering” as a portrait of two equals competing to establish supremacy.
But the broader edges of Snyder’s tale, which was populated by giants, monsters and mystics, have been pared away to focus on the mettle of “real” men making the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country.
For better or worse, Stapleton is a star in the same way that Gerard Butler was when he starred in 300, although it remains to be seen if he will find a niche in Hollywood elsewhere. He’s certainly a formidable presence on screen, and there’s an appealing consciousness behind his eyes that elevates him above the ranks of the industry’s aspiring action heroes; although calling him a next-generation Russell Crowe (without the same depths of simmering intensity) is certainly premature, he undeniably has more potential than, say, Taylor Kitsch has ever displayed.
Otherwise, Rise Of An Empire is all Eva Green’s show, and she clearly relishes the opportunity to not only match, but exceed, her male counterparts’ supposedly indefatigable toughness. Green sees more action here than Headey’s Queen Gorgo did in 300, demolishing the era’s gender dynamics with a performance that plays like an act of revenge upon all of the love-interest roles she’s ever been offered. That Artemisia is Themistocles’ opponent offers a welcome change to the action-movie formula; that Green makes her a convincing adversary (physically as well as emotionally) is a testament to the actress’ talent and commitment.
Murro’s only true crime here is his failure to show any hint of directorial authorship; his control of the form and structure of the narrative notwithstanding, it’s unclear what ideas or message he wants to impose upon material that Snyder made his own seven years previously. But given that the movie’s priority as a whole seems to be to replicate the style and impact of its predecessor, his imprint might simply be fidelity.
In that regard, 300: Rise Of An Empire is entirely successful, becoming a worthy companion piece to the first film…albeit one that fails to distinguish itself, let alone expand the realm or its characters.