A film review by Craig J. Koban March 11, 2014 


2014, R, 102 mins.


Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo  /  Sullivan Stapleton as Themistocles  /  Eva Green as Artemisia  /  Jack O'Connell as Calisto  /  Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes  /  David Wenham as Dillios  /  Callan Mulvey as Scyllias  /  Andrew Tiernan as Ephialtes  /  Ashraf Barhom as General Bandari  /  Andrew Pleavin as Daxos

Directed by Noam Murro  /  Written by Kurt Johnstad and Zack Synder


I'm not going to ever apologize for liking 2007’s 300 as much as I did.  In my original review for it I described it as “GLADIATOR on a cocktail of speed and hallucinogenic drugs.”  

That still sounds about right.  Director Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s 1998 graphic novel source material was a historical action epic – albeit light on history and ultra-heavy on blood-curdling mayhem – and a sensationally evocative visceral thrill ride.  It wasn’t trying to be a document of the past (please!); rather, it was trying to be a living, breathing comic book brought to life.  Snyder’s recreation of Miller’s panels was slavishly meticulous right down to minute details, but he also imparted in it an aesthetic style that has been heavily borrowed by many lesser action pictures.  I had no problem placing 300 on my list of the Ten Best Films of 2007; it was an audacious original.   

Now, having said that, no sequel to it could possibly have the same level of startling, eye-popping novelty and freshness as Snyder’s film.  The only thing that a sequel could do, in retrospect, is mix things up, which is precisely what 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE does.  Rather than being a straightforward follow-up to its Spartan-centric predecessor, this new film (helmed by Israeli Noam Murro, replacing Snyder, whom now serves as co-writer and producer) is creatively a prequel, a sidequel, and a sequel, if you will, to the very events that occurred in the 2007 film.  Beyond its interesting narrative approach, Murro proves himself to be surprisingly adept (considering his filmmaking resume; his last film was the family dramedy SMART PEOPLE) at harnessing the flashy and bombastic stylistic trappings that Snyder pioneered in the first film to make the sequel feel like a naturally occurring by-product.  300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is every bit 300’s equal as an awe-inspiring visual odyssey. 



In terms of story specifics, 300: RISE OF THE EMPIRE takes place mostly during the events of the original film, with some nifty flashbacks to incidents prior to the film and then ultimately climaxes with events that propel after the conclusion of 300.  With Spartan King Leonidas now dead, a new warrior hero is required to step in and replace him to defend Greece and its people from the despotic god-king, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro).  General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton, trying as he can to harness the Gerard Butler’s mountain-sized gusto from the first film, with intermittent results) is more than equal to the task of keeping his homeland safe and free of Xerxes’ tyranny.  He plans a daring naval defensive of Greece at the same time Leonidas plots his own battle with his brave squad of 300 men. 

Xerxes has a secret weapon, though, in his back pocket in the form of Artemisia (smokey eyed beauty Eva Green) who leads the Persian navy with a ruthless and cunning intensity.  Before Artemisia and Themistocles lock horns in battle, the latter seeks out the aid and guidance of Leonidas’ wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), but his attempts at gaining assistance from her are met with much hesitation.  Because of a newfound lack of resources at his disposal, Themistocles begins to rally his men and come up with rather ingenious strategizing to take on the much larger Persia fleet.  When swift and assured tactics pave the way for his victory in the first two battles, Artemisia becomes increasingly irritated with her own military tacticians, which forces to seek an audience with Themistocles himself in hopes of luring him over to her cause.  After what is easily the most peculiar – and violently eroticized – meeting of tactical minds in movie history, Themistocles decides that it's all or nothing and prepares his men for the final onslaught of Artemisia’s forces. 

Now, to be fair, Sullivan Stapleton has mighty large shoes (or is it sandals?) to fill with the vacated Gerard Butler, as not too many actors would be able to re-capture his level of fire and brimstone tenacity from the first 300.  Sullivan certainly looks the part and is a reasonably engaging sword-hacking protagonist, but he’s ultimately a poor-man’s Leonidas.  Thankfully, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE’s ace up its sleeve is Eva Green, who gives this ostensibly male-centric universe a much needed dosage of formidable feminine potency.  Artemisia is no submissive woman trapped in this sea of six-pack adorned machismo; she’s a snarling, tenacious, blood lusting, and vengeful minded dominatrix that will use any method to exact her unique brand of retribution.  Yes, this sequel woefully misses Butler, but Green picks up the slack with her gloriously inspired and deliriously crazed turn as her Persian commander with a taste for death.  Compellingly enough, she one-ups the male actors at their own performance game. 

Films like these, of course, exist for their chaotically violent battle scenes that border on war porn, and 300: RISE OF THE EMPIRE is an unqualified triumph in delivering on its promises of super-slow-mo ultraviolence with an unparalleled oomph factor.  All of the blunt force trauma that was on display to fetishistic levels in 300 has been lovingly preserved here by Murro, with blood and brain matter be slashed and hacked at the screen with so much force that it often clouds the camera lenses and obscures our view.  Thankfully, complimenting the stomach-churning, yet exhilarating man-on-man skirmishes are the bravura naval battles, which make us of cutting edge CGI effects, a wondrously bass-heavy rendered sound track, and striking cinematography to create a ballet of wanton nautical carnage.  Few war-inspired films are both nauseatingly and beautifully rendered as this film is; the battles themselves almost take on a perverted, surreal elegance at times. 

I’m not sure where else to go in this review.  300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is a shockingly effective and robustly vigorous sequel that – like its antecedent – creates a non-stop audio-visual showpiece that engulfs audiences from the get-go and never looks back or apologies for its twisted eccentricities.  By adhering to the formal aesthetic that Snyder brought to his 2007 film while, at the same time, imbuing in the plot a relatively intriguing take on the events – pre, during, and post – of that film, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE emerges as a far better sequel than I certainly was ever expecting.  It feels, through and through, like a series of exquisitely rendered comic book panels transplanted on the silver screen and, as far as out-of-body escapist films go, few recent examples have this film’s dazzling and vivid impact.   

And headlining all this pulp-inspired madness is Green, who just may be the most sexy and terrifying female antagonist to occupy an action flick in an awfully long time.  She goes places here that few other actress would.  

Trust me. 

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