“300” was a nice surprise when it came out in 2007. Based off of Frank Miller’s comic of the same name, the film was about a group of 300 Spartans who try to stick it to the Persian Army. They are betrayed and then gloriously slaughtered. It was bombastically masculine, overly grandiose and each frame was soaked with gallons of blood. It was a goofy-but-satisfying film that was fun for the one time I saw it with a theater full of fist pumping and hollering bros.
Flash forward seven years later, and a follow-up film has been released. I was skeptical leading up to this film’s release, because what can you really do with this story with the majority of the main characters being dead at the end of the last film? Well, they found a way and it worked (for the most part).
Set before, during and after the events of “300,” “Rise of an Empire” is sort-of based off of Frank Miller’s “Xerxes.” I say “sort-of” because that book has been long delayed and still doesn’t have a release date.
The story is set around the Athenian warrior Themistocles, played by Sullivan Stapleton, as he tries to unify Greece against the incoming force of the Persian army. Where this is a prequel, Themistocles goes to Sparta to meet with Queen Gorgo, reprised by Lena Headey, to get help from The Spartans and King Leonidas (the heroes of the first film). Denied, Themistocles heads up a crew of ships and battles the Persians’ lead naval officer, Artemisia, played by Eva Green. This takes place congruently and after the events of the original “300.”
To set up a broader world, “Rise of an Empire” seems to throw in a lot of exposition. Throughout the first half of the film, there are several information dumps to set-up people, places, events and back stories–this becomes a little overwhelming. Also, being a story that is a prequel and sequel, it’s difficult at times to figure what happens in what time frame. Despite the pacing problems, “Rise of an Empire” excels at having great leads.
What I liked about Stapleton’s Themistocles was that he’s a very different character than Leonidas. While both are military men and leaders of their respective communities, Themistocles is more level-headed. Leonidas is brash, only cares about Sparta and couldn’t care less about the rest of Greece. Leonidas also feels out of place as a leader and would much rather be on the battlefield than at home. Themistocles, on the other hand, looks at the long game as an Athenian, and works with others in Greece to fight backagainst the Persians. Themistocles also seems at home just as much in the senate as he does on the field.
While both characters are very different in terms of personality, they also have a very different fighting style that doesn’t feel like a retread of the first. Leonidas is like a bro at a high school kegger walking forward and killing everything in his way, while Themistocles is a naval tactician which leads to some cool ship battle scenes. It’s unfortunate that all the gore is sub-par CGI constantly flying at you — because how else are you going to know this is a 3D film? Also, the slow-mo was pretty cool when “300” director Zach Snyder started using it, but it’s a bit played out in “Rise of an Empire.”
The most outstanding feature of “Rise of an Empire” is Eva Green as Artemisia. Driven by revenge, Artemisia is ruthless and terrifying. She stands toe-to-toe with Themistocles in a way that develops into a great rivalry as the story goes on. Artemisia also plays a big part, pulling the strings of the leader of the Persian army, Xerxes. Green has some great moments and is an early contender for best villain of 2014.
It’s a shame that outside of Artemisia and Themistocles, no one else is really developed.
“Rise of an Empire” trades blows with its predecessor but never lands that critical hit that pushes it past its predecessor. Green and Stapleton turn out great performances and the ship battle scenes are fun to watch, but trying to add more to the previous film’s sparse story leaves the story bloated. For what it was, I had a good time, and with 2014’s film slate for the most part making me want to dine in hell, “Rise of an Empire” a fun bit of madness.