********* 7 out of 10 *********
Director: Noam Murro
Actors: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey
The battle of King Leonidas and his brave 300 Spartans against the Persian God-King Xerxes was immortalised in 2007’s film 300. The re-enactment of the tale on sacrifice and glory not only made King Leonidas a part of pop culture, but also worked wonders for the careers of actor Gerard Butler and director Zack Snyder. Considering the ending of the film, a sequel of any sorts seemed unlikely. But as it turns out, the Spartan battle was only one of many raging wars between the Empire of Persia and the Greek city-states. All Hollywood needed was another fine battle story which it could bring to the big screen, allowing it to leverage the success of 300 and build a franchise around it. So the Battle of Salamis was chosen, a war fought on turbulent waters back in 480 BC, between the Greek allies led by Athenian general Themistocles and the Persian navy of Xerxes. And thus was born 300: Rise of an Empire. Seven years is a long gap in today’s world to release a sequel, but 300: Rise of an Empire does bring back the stylised battles along with the six-pack abs men and ravishing women which makes us reminiscent of the original 300.
300: Rise of an Empire narrates events before, during and after the Battle of Thermopylae which was shown in 2007’s 300. The initial parts of the movie are more about Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), and the reasons that drove him to become the “God-King” and vengeful towards Greece. As Xerxes’ forces advance towards Thermopylae, his navy under the command of Artemisia (Eva Green) is preparing for an onslaught from the seas. It is here that Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and his men, despite being outnumbered severely, take their stand against the Persians. What follows is a battle of mind as much as might, and what is at stake is more than the lives of good men, for it is the concept of freedom in itself that Themistocles, much like Leonidas, vows to protect.
While 300 was based on the Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name, 300: Rise of an Empire has Miller’s yet-unpublished graphic novel Xerxes mentioned as a source. But as Xerxes has not yet been completely written, much credit goes to the screenplay work by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, both of whom had worked on the previous film as well. The story is strongly interwoven with the events of the first film; the dialogues are crisply written, acting as great foundations to build the intensity of the movie on. Seeing some of the old cast like Lena Heady return as Queen Gorgo, Leonidas’ wife, and David Wenham as Dilios (one of the 300 who lost an eye in the battle), would make you nostalgic. Gerard Butler’s Leonidas reappears briefly, through footage from the first film. All this gives the battle with the Persians a bigger picture and makes it enormous enough to appreciate again the deeds of King Leonidas and his men.
The visual effects and cinematography are once again the driving elements of the film. Simon Duggan (The Great Gatsby, Live Free or Die Hard) is the man in charge for cinematography, having taken over from the usual Snyder collaborator Larry Fong who worked on 300. The work done here in keeping the “oooh” and “aaahh” factors alive in the stylised battle scenes is commendable, and even though the uniqueness of 300 would no longer be felt, it does not feel repetitive or overtly dragged at any point. Red is swapped with blue for this one. The action sequences have been shot skilfully, with the sword fights capturing the warriors’ graceful and smooth movements perfectly. There are a lot of violent scenes in the film, and the distinctive slow-motion shots that suddenly speed up from the first film keep the intensity high here too.
Director Noam Murro has brought in much of the style and the quality of the first film with 300: Rise of an Empire. But he’s been handed the tough job of building a Zack Snyder film without being Zack Snyder. This movie had to be narrated and shot in a particular way; it could not deviate much from the first film. And so one is yet to learn what a Noam Murro film would really look like, for this is only his second directorial work on a full-length feature film (the first being 2008’s Smart People). Back in 2007, Snyder too was working on his second film, but what he brought with 300 was visionary. Murro lacks that freedom and so the feeling of this sequel being a Snyder-lookalike does not leave you while watching it.
Much as Murro has to fill the boots of Snyder, actor Sullivan Stapleton has to match up to the brawn shoulders of Gerard Butler. Stapleton has featured largely on television so far, and the role of General Themistocles is one of the most prominent roles he has had to play on the big screen. Stapleton built up muscularly to meet the requirements of the character, and coupled with a height of more than 6 feet, he has a dominant personality that makes him believable as a leader of an army of strong men. Themistocles isn’t only roaring in the film, but is shown as a politician and strategist as well. Stapleton is pretty much engaging in each of these roles; he seems earnest and ferocious, whatever the scene demands of him. It is however difficult not to draw comparisons with Butler’s performance as Leonidas. And that is where Stapleton falls much short. His war-cries aren’t booming enough to make you want to scream back in collusion, his rage isn’t animated enough to make your pulse beat quicker, his heroics aren’t valiant enough to understand the sacrifice made. Do not blame this on Stapleton, but on the ground-breaking performance by Butler in the first film, which makes General Themistocles feel a faraway second to King Leonidas (even though a competition it isn’t).
Eva Green as Artemisia is the main antagonist here rather than Xerxes. In her slender frame, it takes time to accept her as a naval commander and a fine fighter, but as the movie moves forward, Green gives a memorable account of Artemisia. Her surly frown juxtaposed with her beautiful features make her all the more alluring to watch. She delivers her battle lines with venom which makes her appear a formidable foe to match the brawn of Stapleton. In a battle between half-clad men flexing their muscles, Eva Green’s Artemisia never seems out of place, and her presence brings a lot of freshness to the film. Besides her, Lena Headey returning as Queen Gorgo represents another tough woman who is willing to take up arms in a man’s war. She is again the devoted wife and the strong queen we loved in 300, and simply seeing her in this film shreds away the seven year gap between the two films. Rodrigo Santoro is again effortless in his portrayal of the greedy and arrogant king Xerxes, and some new characters as Hans Matheson playing a young willing fighter (remember a young Michael Fassbender from 300?) and Callan Mulvey as his father, leave an impression.
There could be more tales to follow on the Persian Wars if 300: Rise of an Empire does well financially on the global box-office. The blood soaked battle scenes alone would not suffice though, and the makers would have to ensure that they continue to develop smart screenplays for the future movies as they have done with the first two. As for those who are complaining about the lack of historical accuracy in the film, to them I say, give the writers the creative freedom to make fictionalised tales of events that occurred more than two thousand years back. For historically accurate information, switch over to The History Channel. For me, 300: Rise of an Empire is a well-packaged film, enjoyable and entertaining!