Genre: Action, Drama, War
Directed by: Noam Murro
Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson
In an ideal world, style and substance combine together, but a perfectly decent film can be created from an overreliance on only one. 300, released in all its gaudy CGI glory in 2007, stands as a case in point. The ticket purchased in the cinema foyer probably contained more written depth than Zack Snyder’s entire film, but it at least carried out its flashy pretensions admirably. The same cannot be said for the sequel. Eschewing content once again, the style is just a re-tread of the original in a story that somehow manages to feel flabbier despite a shorter running time.
The sequel gives the Persians an expanded role while the Athenians are the main Greek focus of attention. A lengthy introduction from Lena Headey, reprising her role as the Spartan Queen Gorgo, fills us in on the state of play. In something of a break from historical orthodoxy, it turns out that the Persian ruler King Darius (Yigal Naor) was killed at the battle of Marathon by Athenian commander Themistocles’ arrow (Sullivan Stapleton). Watching his father die in front of him had such a profound impact on young Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) that his father’s naval commander, Artemisia (Eva Green) was able to manipulate him into becoming the gold coated God king hell bent on revenge.
With his strange booming voice issuing the orders, we jump forward to the Persian invasion and the annihilation of the small Spartan force led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler). As that battle didn’t quite go to plan, it looks like it’s up to a small patchwork navy of Greek ships, led by none other than Themistocles, to try and hold off the overbearing weight of Persian aggression and save the disparate Greek states from destruction.
It’s churlish to criticise Snyder and co-writer Kurt Johnstad’s script for the many historical liberties taken. This is a series based on a graphic novel, not historical record after all. While they should be free to add as many inaccuracies as they like, it would have been nice if this license to jazz up historical record might have resulted in a more interesting film. Instead, it’s just a hotchpotch of famous figures engaging in a series of dull diplomatic episodes and strangely sanitised military encounters.
The heart of the film lies with the extravagant action scenes. Yet they only manage a base level of entertainment, otherwise standing as pale imitations of the past decade of CGI infused cinema. Stepping in for Snyder as director, Noam Murro follows exactly the same playbook with smears of vivid red bursting out as swords slash, horses charge and arrows fly. The reliance on slow-motion, always Snyder’s most irritating visual tic, returns to plague the sequel. Every action sequence, or even the slightest hint of violence, is full of interminable breaks, the fighting stopping and starting all over the shop. The only difference here is that a lot of the fighting takes place at sea. Murro gets to ram ships, set fire to everything and send people overboard, all acts he is not afraid to use to the death.
Despite an overabundance of computer trickery, the most bizarre thing 300: Rise of an Empire fails to do is generate any real sense of scale. The script finds plenty of opportunity for characters to pontificate on the overwhelming odds facing the Greeks, but this is rarely represented visually. Instead, it all becomes rather parochial as a handful of Persian ships fight a smaller handful of Greek ships. Again. And again. And again.
At least Eva Green gets to let loose with Artemisia, striding across her ship delivering cruel speeches while executing those that annoy her. She even turns the horrifically hammy dialogue into an entertaining pantomime spectacle, bouncing effectively off the stern but sufficiently imposing Stapleton. Unfortunately, they are given a centrepiece sex scene that starts off as merely ridiculous before becoming increasingly repellent in its unnecessary gratuity. The sop of Green does little to add balance to the macho comic world that epitomises the films Snyder is involved in. Sure, all the men are scantily glad, bronzed pin-ups, but that doesn’t stop Murro throwing in a topless woman early on, bouncing around in slow-motion as she is dragged off by invaders.
300: Rise of an Empire is not a complete disaster. The repetitive action does at least raise a flickering level of entertainment, and the theatrical main performances, led by Green, almost manage to turn poor dialogue into a virtue. But it’s too witless and self-aggrandising to match the lack of substance, with a story that fails to find any emotional impact, or even coherence. Let’s just hope that Hollywood is done with the Greco-Persian wars and can leave the cradle of democracy in peace.