300: Rise of an Empire is a movie that knows exactly what it’s supposed to be – excessively violent, highly stylized, and draped in gore. This, along with its sequel status, makes it very easy to dismiss. Nothing more than a pulpy genre film, shallow and one-dimensional.
To its credit though, Rise of an Empire does what it does very, very well. In many ways, even surpassing the original (granted, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen said original). Is it enough to acquit it of the flaws of its predecessor? Not really, no. If you didn’t like 300 this new iteration won’t change your mind. But for a pulpy, one-dimensional genre film, it’s one of the better ones.
Rise of an Empire functions as neither prequel nor sequel, instead running on a parallel timeline to the original 300. Once again it follows another outnumbered group of scrappy Greeks, this time as they fight off the Persian invasion in highly fictionalized versions of the battles of Artemisium and Salamis.
The movie does a particularly good job of explaining the intricate relationships and backstories behind the conflict. It may come across a little over-explanatory to people already familiar with the graphic novel, but considering the rather convoluted politics involved it would have been easy to get lost.
These backstories also serve as a means to flesh out some of the film’s main characters, which is a nice added touch. None of them end up being Citizen Kane or anything, but they accomplish what they need to in the context of the material. Considering how thin the characters were in the first movie, it was worth the try.
Sullivan Stapleton plays Themistocles, essentially Gerard Butler’s replacement, an outgunned leader who has to use superior tactics to repel a much larger force. The 300 series is great at pursing through the ebbs and flows of combat, knowing exactly where to sprinkle in each small moment of victory. It’s in these instances a character like Themistocles can shine, when his tactics do the talking.
Unfortunately, the film tends to over rely on rousing speeches to fill the gaps in the action and Themistocles in particular seems to suffer for it. Yes, freedom and democracy are good and yes, the burden of command is real, but to delve into these issues would require a lot more screen time than Rise of an Empire could ever give them and after a while the overwrought lecturing experiences diminishing returns.
Still, the one thing Rise of an Empire gets right over its predecessor is its villain, Artemisia (Eva Green). She’s probably the most complex character in the movie, brutal and calculating in a way that makes her the perfect counterpart to Themistocles. And with all due respect to him, she’s a lot more interesting to watch.
A lot of that has to do with Eva Green, who delivers a magnetic presence on screen. Every scene she’s in is bought and paid for. She owns this movie. And she’s plays Artemisia with refreshing force. Frankly, it’s just nice to see a female presence in one of these movies that can match the over-the-top machismo of the men.
Rise of an Empire could be a little shorter. And despite the odd improvement (aka Eva Green) it’s still pretty much more of the same. Bloody and loud, just like its predecessor. But the movie knows where its strengths lie and executes extremely well. While it may be light on substance, there’s still a few tricks left in 300’s arsenal that can entertain.
Final Score: 3/5