300 remains one of my all time favorite guilty pleasures. It’s absolutely absurd, visually fantastic, and cemented Zack Snyder as a blockbuster director with a style all his own (for better or worse). In terms of pure entertainment value, I don’t think you get much better than the stupid fun of the original 300, every cheesy line quotable, every fight scene memorable.
But even through all that, a sequel never seemed like a good idea.
It was long joked about what “301” might look like. Zombie Leonidas rises from the grave to fight Xerxes’ hordes, and such. But the actual sequel draws on more Greek history, and isn’t really a sequel at all, nor a prequel. I’m actually not quite sure what to call a movie that takes place in a parallel timeline to the original film. But that’s exactly how Rise of an Empire is structured.
While Leonidas holds off Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) at the hot gates with his Spartans, one of the Persian’s top generals, Artemisa (Eva Green) assaults the Greek with her powerful navy. She does battle with a Greek hero named Themistocles (Sullivan Stapelton) who killed Xerxes’ father King Darius a decade ago, as he tries to unite the Greek city-states to take on the Persians as a unified unit.
Though the return of past characters like Xerxes and Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) are heavily advertised, they’re mostly cameos. They mostly appear at the beginning and end of the film only, though I suppose Xerxes at least has more screen time than he did in the original. In fact, nearly every subcharacter returns in some form, from the treacherous hunchback, to the one-eye messanger Spartan, to the Athenian guy who ran away, to the Perisan envoy who got kicked into the pit. Literally everyone appears except Gerard Butler’s Leonidas. “Oh you just missed him,” Queen Gorgo says as Themistocles shows up to try and recruit Spartan’s fleet for the war effort. “He’s consulting the Oracle.”
While 300 made Gerard Butler a leading man (though most of his films since have been so-so), Rise of an Empire will likely not do the same for Sullivan Stapleton. The Australian actor has been in many smaller films, most notably the rather good Animal Kingdom, but his presence here just isn’t as impactful as Butler’s was as Leonidas. He follows the same path. He kills Persians. He gives rousing speeches. He has abs. But there’s something missing, and he’s simply just a guy who’s really good at fighting, not a hero to rally behind or quote ad nauseam.
The same can be said of really all the Athenians. None are memorable whatsoever for any reason other than their physiques (forever on display as all Greeks refuse to wear armor, not just Spartans, it seems). The film spends a lot of time with the merry band, but they’re the most unmemorable bunch of lead characters I’ve ever seen.
Eva Green’s Artemisa is far and away the best character in the film. She has a far more interesting backstory and motivation than anyone, as she was Greek-born, but betrayed by her own people and was trained by the Persians to lead armies to exact revenge. She’s a more interesting foil than Xerxes, whose backstory we also learn, but he never does any actual fighting. Despite being an eight foot tall muscled monster, he’s just a figurehead, and Artemisa is quick to let him know that.
The most absurd moment of the film comes when Themistocles agrees to meet with Artemisa in neutral waters, and within sixty seconds, they’re having hate sex as she tries to recruit him to join the Persians. But when a topless scene for a major actress is the most talked about moment in your film, you’ve probably done something wrong (see Swordfish).
Unlike the plot of 300, a group of warriors defending against increasingly tough waves of a massive army, the structure of Rise of an Empire isn’t as effective. Because the film is at least attempting to draw on actual history, the naval battles are spread out and their locations and significance in the greater war is unclear. At one point Xerxes just completely levels Athens, which no one else even talks about in the film despite it seeming like a pretty major plot development.
The action is generally pretty solid, but it’s missing the eye of Zack Snyder, the world’s premiere slow motion fight expert. I was impressed with how the CGI of the massive ship battles was barely noticeable, or at least stylized well enough so you didn’t care, though the computer generated blood needed a bit more work. It does produce at least a few memorable fight scenes, but it can veer into the ridiculous as Themistocles jumps between multiple ships on a horse in the finale.
300 was a unique film that most either loved or hated. Rise of an Empire is an attempt to recapture what made the original so special, but copying something unique is almost always a recipe to create a product that doesn’t feel quite as well-fashioned, and certainly doesn’t seem innovative anymore. Rise of an Empire has a jumbled plot and a weak cast of heroes. Its villains are far more interesting, and a few good fight scenes can’t save it.
2 out of 5 stars