300: Rise of an Empire Blu-ray ReviewJune 18, 2014
It’s a bit surprising that a sequel to 2007’s very successful sword-and-sandals epic 300 took 7 years to come to fruition. Since it’s been such a long time, one could easily assume that there were production troubles, rewrites, reshoots, etc. – all the things that make one question a film’s quality. So it’s a bit of a shock that 300: Rise of an Empire is a strong popcorn flick. It’s every bit as good as its predecessor, and enriches the tale of King Leonidas’ last stand against the Persian empire by weaving a tale that takes place before, during, and after the Battle of Thermopylae.
The film begins at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, where Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and his army fight off the invading Persian forces, with Themistocles mortally wounding Persian leader Darius. Darius is the father of Xerxes, who you may remember as the giant, golden god-king from the original film. Darius warns Xerxes about attacking the Greeks again before falling victim to his injuries; his right-hand naval commander Artemisia twists his final words, telling Xerxes that it was a challenge rather than a warning, and that he will become a god-king. While Xerxes becomes a tyrant, Themistocles seeks a united Greece, attempting to spread the new Athenian idea of democracy.
Ten years later, Xerxes declares war on Greece, bringing with him a near-insurmountable army. While King Leonidas battles Xerxes’ forces on land, Themistocles and the Athenian army take to the sea, where most of Rise of an Empire takes place. While the visual style is very similar to its predecessor, Rise of an Empire tries to separate itself by featuring mostly naval combat. Themistocles is also not an exact clone of Gerard Butler’s Leonidas. Sure, they look pretty similar, and both shout orders and rallying speeches while slaughtering enemies in slow motion. But Themistocles is a tactician who knows when to retreat, as opposed to Leonidas and the Spartans, who see dying in battle as the ultimate victory.
Just as in the original 300, Themistocles and his Athenian brothers are greatly outnumbered in Rise of an Empire, and beyond that, they’re not soldiers – their people are mostly craftsmen, poets and farmers. Even boys are forced to take up arms when Persian forces invade. Themistocles has a bit more men than Leonidas did — about 50 ships’ worth — but the Persian empire descends upon him with ships numbering in the thousands.
The ships are commanded by the beautiful, ruthless Artemisia (Eva Green), who absolutely steals the show. Artemisia is a cunning, cold-blooded femme fatale who pulls Xerxes’ strings while obsessing over the worthy opponent that is Themistocles. Not content with barking orders and sitting on the sidelines, Artemisia gets her hands dirty, and red with the blood of the Greeks. She gets to mix it up with the boys in several memorable fight sequences, including an incredible battle at the tail end of the film. The action in Rise of an Empire is fast and brutal but never incomprehensible, and there’s one amazing battle where the camera doesn’t cut for upwards of 30 seconds, in a fascinating display of choreography.
Less memorable is Themistocles, and though Stapleton does what he can with what he was given, at times the character feels like a pale imitation of the now-iconic Leonidas. Still, Themistocles’ regret at his actions that started the war, as well as his sadness for sending his soldiers to an early grave feel believable. He also feels believable in the role of a soldier, making complicated choreography look effortless and badass.
300: Rise of an Empire has a decent amount of special features. Behind the Scenes: The 300 Effect (HD, 30 minutes) details the film’s production, from its beginnings as an unpublished Frank Miller story, to Zack Snyder coming on as producer, to the merging of the incredible visual effects with the actor’s performances. Includes the segments “3 Days in Hell,” “Brutal Artistry,” “A New Breed of Hero” and “Taking the Battle to Sea.” Real Leaders and Legends (HD, 23 minutes) discusses the liberties taken with the historical source material, as dissected by the filmmakers as well as actual historians. Women Warriors (HD, 12 minutes) takes a look at the characters of Queen Gorgo and Artemisia, both their actual historical versions as well as their on-screen counterparts, and how they fit into the DNA of 300. Savage Warships (HD, 11 minutes) takes a look at the sets built for the naval battles as well as the technology and tactics of the Greeks. Becoming A Warrior is a quick look at the actors getting shredded up in the gym for their roles in Rise of an Empire, but it’s far too short at only five minutes.
Overall, 300: Rise of an Empire is a sequel worthy of its predecessor. Sullivan Stapleton’s Themistocles is an adequate replacement for Gerard Butler’s Leonidas, and Eva Green’s Artemisia steals the show as one of the most badass female warriors ever seen on the big screen. Director Noam Murro ably directs the film in the style of previous director (and now producer) Zack Synder, while still making it his own. While Rise of an Empire doesn’t necessarily improve on its predecessor, it’s better than it has any right to be and will surely please fans of the original.