By R. David

Viewed March 7, 2014

The sequel, “300:  Rise of an Empire”, takes place before, during and after Zack Snyder’s original “300”.  It’s an odd, potentially confusing, yet interesting framing device for a film that is otherwise fairly devoid of original ideas.  The narrative proves successful in keeping audiences interested in all this simplistic battle-to-rule-it-all nonsense, if for no other reason than we maintain some interest as to how the two films will ultimately align.  Because this is not a immediate sequel to the 2007 hit, and doesn’t feature any of the prominent cast members of that film in major roles, providing a concurrently-running backstory to – not only what became of those characters, but how these new ones relate – is a rather ingenious bit of melding what is otherwise a completely separate film to its namesake source material.  This is a far more interesting approach than, say, lazily informing us via an opening title card crawl or half-hearted action montage that everyone from the first film is simply gone and we’re moving on.

Like the original “300”, “Rise of an Empire” is based on the graphic novels by Frank Miller, who is all but deified among comic book aficionados and film fanboys alike.  Noam Murro takes over directing duties from Zack Snyder (who stills serves as producer) but the difference in their technique and style are negligible.  Snyder’s fingerprints are all over this film, from the famous freeze-frame, slow-mo effect in the battle sequences, to the geysers of blood and severed limbs that fly across the screen, to the entire production taking place in front of green screen, digitally altered backgrounds and locations.  Murro (whose only other directing credit is the little-seen and long forgotten 2008 dramady “Smart People”) makes a fine substitute as all but the most discriminating Snyder faithful (if there is such thing) will likely notice the replacement.  I can only assume this is very much intentional on Warner Bros.’ part as this sequel arrives a couple of years too late and couldn’t feel more like a cash-in move by the studio VS something resembling an actual project that anyone involved here was in any way passionate about beyond its box office potential.  The last thing they want to do is draw attention to the fact that nobody from the first film cared to return for a second (at least not in their same roles and capacity).

But for a soulless, cash-in sequel that no one was really clamoring for at this point, “300:  ROAE” is surprisingly engaging.  It all but pauses to admit to the audience that there is no justification for its existence, but it will give it the old college try just the same.  And that bit of heart – its desire to please and entertain – carries it a good long way towards approaching something resembling passable entertainment.  The story arc, as mentioned, is intriguing, and its a fine excuse to hang all the gonzo, bloody battles and snarling dialog that is now this series stock in trade.  ROAE is really no better or worse than its predecessor (despite what that film’s oddly dedicated followers would have you believe).  If you found “300” thrilling on a visceral level, I can’t fathom how that same audience would not be elated here has well.  It really is more of the same.  So, at the very least, ROAE gives its target audience what they want rather than trying to up the ante with a bunch of highfalutin, earnest melodrama in an effort to disguise itself as something better or smarter than the silly matinee-level bloodbath it is.

The plot here is more or less beside the point.  It’s a bit more complicated (well, convoluted anyway), but in a nutshell – and all anyone really needs to know in order to understand the point of all the carnage on the screen, if any – in a separate but parallel mission to Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas in the first film, Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton, from the Cinemax series “Strike Back”) and his hoorah-merry band of Spartan warriors have set sail to unite all of Greece against Persian invaders, led by man-God (and gay icon, apparently) Xerxes (a returning but barely used Rodrigo Santoro).  Xerxes has dispatched Artemisia (“Casino Royale” Bond Girl, Eva Green), commander of the Persian navy, to lay waste to Themistokles and his men.  Bloody battles and lots of mantra shouting ensues.

This is all pretty basic stuff, but it’s poured through a high gloss, CGI filter of cinematic tricks to distract from its less-than involving story and slack pace (it’s even being shown in 3-D for those who really want to feel as though the crimson viscera is hitting them in the face).  ROAE isn’t boring exactly – it never goes more than a few minutes between epic battles – but there’s not a whole lot for the audience to invest in, rendering all the supposed danger and would-be excitement rather nonexistent.  The movie looks terrific but that doesn’t translate into audiences caring about these characters or their motives.  As a result, all the heavy-breathing talk of a mission that must be completed at all costs, for the greater good, and that is more important than life itself elicits eye rolls instead of anything resembling emotional investment.

But ROAE does have one ace up its sleeve, and her name is Eva Green.  While all the men are your garden variety grunting and shouting warriors we all remember from the first film, Artemisia is a cunning, sexy and razor-tongued enigma.  She chews scenery, as well as any one who gets in her way.  She is by far the most interesting and intimidating character in film where everyone is brandishing swords and hacking off limbs.  And she plays with the big boys in kind.  Green was ravishing and heartbreaking in 2004’s “The Dreamers”.  This performance doesn’t exactly require nuance, but she is a stunning and sexual creature of a different sort here.  Her hate-fu*k scene with Themistokles is one the more surprising and memorable sex scenes in recent movie memory, and in this film, with all of its bellowing and 3-D assisted mayhem, it is ironically the one thing audiences are likely to remember more than five minutes after the film ends.  It’s a brilliant character choice and casting move, and easily the best thing about ROAE.

“300:  Rise of an Empire” looks great and gets the job done in terms of spectacle entertainment; and thanks to Eva Green’s delicious performance (the rest of the cast all carry themselves adequately, if none too memorably) even manages to provide a surprising amount of levity and intrigue.  It’s not a great film, but it should please its intended audience, and certainly could have been so much worse.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)