300: Rise of an Empire Review
I have been stacking the deck against this movie since I first heard about it. It may seem to many of you that I had written the movie off completely before it was even released, and perhaps I did. How could a sequel (or prequel?) to a monster hit, not based off of any material written by the comic that inspired the first film be any good? That's the question I asked my self time and time again, and I could never wrap my head around it. No matter what I say or how many times I say it, I always carry hope. Sometimes its a fool's hope, but its hope nonetheless. No matter what genre, no matter what cast, no matter what crew, movies can always possess the power to surprise you. That is one of the many reasons why I love movies so much, their ability to surprise. I can carry baggage about a film until its release, but once I step into the theater, I open my mind to it for that simple reason. Every time I sit down to watch a new movie, I want a good time. It doesn't have to be award-worthy, it doesn't have to my mind right out of my skull, I would just rather like a movie than despise it.
It seems that against all odds, "300: Rise of an Empire" is actually kind of good.
Does it surpass the original? Not even close, "300" was lightening in a bottle, and its hard to capture that same energy twice. It tries very hard to capture that energy again, and in certain scenes, the movie certainly imitates it. But its simply not the original and that's okay. Its not even a flawless movie, this isn't something I am going to go out of my way to buy once it hits retail stands. There is plenty here that I am really fuzzy about, and we'll get to that pretty quick. But hey, "300: Rise of an Empire" flattened my expectations, I was very much expecting to rail against this one for days, confirming my darkest beliefs, but there is stuff in this movie that does work. It works so well that I hate to have to discuss the stuff that doesn't. But if I am being fair, I have to discuss the bad. It should come as shocking praise that I have a handful of good to discuss too.
So perhaps we should start with the bad, just get the bad news out of the way first. The single biggest complaint I have to offer tonight about "300: Rise of an Empire" is this: The handling of Xerxes.
I suppose the biggest question people had in their minds walking out of "300" in 2007 was how did Xerxes become the "god-king" he was in that time period. I am also sure that "300" was such a huge assault on people that they didn't think to pick up a history book. Prequels are always tricky. First, there is always little to no tension, because we know how the story will ultimately end. Second, a prequel story can set up high expectations on a character then fumble with the choices completely. I think that latter happens with this movie. The film opens with the Battle of Marathon, which took place during the first invasion of Greece by the Persian Empire. We learn that an Athenian named Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) surprised attacked the Persians as they landed in Greece. At the climax of the battle, Themistocles shoots and mortally wounds King Darius (Igal Naor) with an arrow. All the while a young Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) tries to save him, and we learn that Themistocles made a grave error. He should have shot Xerxes instead of Darius!
Once Darius finally dies, Xerxes leaves and makes for the Persian deserts, because a Persian warrior woman named Artemisia (Eva Green, more on her later!) insists that Xerxes will become a "god-king." On his journey, Xerxes goes into a cave and then...I am not giving anything away. I will say that he becomes the man we are used to seeing when he comes out of the cave. The execution of how Xerxes finally becomes the "god-king" is poorly, poorly told. First of all, the mystique behind Xerxes gives his character power. Imagine if Christopher Nolan decided to make a prequel detailing how The Joker became who he was. That would shatter everything "The Dark Knight" had to offer, and I am fairly certain I'll never watch "300" the same again because of this. Second, the sub-plot of Artemisia helping Xerxes rise to power is laughably bad, so bad that I almost regretted buying a ticket to watch this thing, almost mind you.
The action scenes are both awesome to watch and silly to watch at the same time. If you read a text about the Greco-Persian wars, you'll learn that a huge naval battle took place simultaneously with The Battle of Thermoppylea. A huge stretch of the film focuses on Themistocles and this huge naval battle against Artemisia, who has control over Persia's navy. The battle scenes are cool because its something much different from the third movie and I'll even say they are quite thrilling at times. What bothered me was how hyper-stylized everything was. I know this is a sequel to "300" and its suppose to be hyper-stylized. However, through all of the style found in the first film, I don't think Zack Snyder overdid anything in 2007. I definitely feel director Noam Murro over did the style in "300: Rise of an Empire," to a point that is distracting. In the first film, aside from the large amount of CGI blood, the fight scenes were realistic and obviously well-choreographed. Here, I could tell that nearly every blow was created by a computer, it was that obvious and a little disappointing.
So those were my main gripes, now let's talk about what works.
If you need one reason to see this movie, see it for Eva Green's performance as Artemisia. She is a ruthless villain that you'll love to hate, but you'll root for her from time to time. I have always loved a villain that wasn't so black-and-white, and I loved how many shades of gray there were in Green's character. Artemisia is Greek who fights with the Persians, but there is a specific reason why she hates the Greeks and why she aids the Persians in their downfall. I thought Green sold her back-story well, made us believe her need to bring pain to her former countrymen. This is the best acting Green has ever done, she is absolutely better than she needed to be for this role. She is creates an intelligent, deadly, cunning, and sexy villain with genuine ease. Her presence guides the whole movie, every time she's onscreen, you won't take your eyes off of her. Its great work and better acting than I expected to see.
Sullivan Stapleton should have no problem becoming a huge star after this. Stapleton had a big task of filling Gerald Butler's shoes from the first film, but Themistocles is a much different character than Leonidas. Themistocles dreams of unifying Greece to fight Persia, its a crazy dream but he firmly believes in it. He is just as brave and courageous as Leonidas and he's also a complete badass. All I can say is that I believed Themistocles as a hero, and I believed in everything Stapleton did with the character. Stapleton created many bright emotions out of his character and he also drives the movie. He does really good work here.
There are little things that I love about the movie. There are small references to the first film. Usually, I hate it when prequels or sequels do this, I hate being constantly reminded that a sequel is a sequel. But here, they are used with respect and with good timing. We learn that when Artemisia was young she was taken in by a Persian and that Persian is played by Peter Mensah. Yes, Peter Mensah, the Persian messenger who gets kicked into the well in "300." His character trains Artemisia to be the deadly warrior she is as an adult. Anybody who is a fan of television's "Spartacus" will remember Mensah and his incredible work as Oneomaus on that show. Mensah's work will put a smile on the face of every "Spartacus" fan who goes to see this. I also liked that Ephialtes, the hunchback who betrayed the Greeks in the first film, plays a crucial role in this movie. Its really brief but it matters. Usually, decisions like this are an afterthought, but I thought they were well-utilized here.
So if you haven't made up your mind about seeing "300: Rise of an Empire" yet, I am happy to say just go. If you are a fan of the first film, I think you'll like this one just fine. I am very happy that I got a good movie, although I am flabbergasted by just how close this film got to being great. That's right, this could have been a great movie. The work done by Green and Stapelton is nearly unbelievable. The battles scenes are epic, even if they are a little distracting. If the film didn't fumble with some key decisions with storytelling, I'd be swept away right now. But, this film got much more right than I expected it would. It was one hell of a ride, and sometimes that's all a good movie can offer. A great ride.
FINAL GRADE B-