It’s very easy to mistake something that’s memorable for being good, but one doesn’t necessarily assure the other. (Case in point: White Chicks.) While 300 wasn’t a bad movie, its spectacular visuals blinded many in 2007 to the fact the movie was sloppily plotted and remarkably stupid, with ham-fisted overacting and dodgy accents.
A sequel — or sidequel, really — to the movie that launched the career of Zack Snyder into the stratosphere, 300: Rise is an Empire is a movie few were actively clamouring for, especially with the departure of Snyder from the director’s chair. (Smart People director Noam Murro takes over this time.) Still, it manages to hold its own again the popular original and arguably trumps it.
Rather than directly following 300’s last stand of Leonidas I at the Battle of Thermopylae, 300: Rise of an Empire rewinds to the beginning and tells the larger story of Persia’s second invasion of Greece. The events begin before Leonidas’s in 300 and continue long past the warrior king’s demise. Characters from the 2007 original, like Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Dilios (David Wenham), and Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) pop up intermittently, weaving the events of 300 into a wider tapestry.
The tale at large is of Xerxes invading Greece to avenge his father’s murder, but the true core of the movie is the stimulating battle of wits that is waged between Artemisia (Eva Green), the naval commander of Xerxes’s army, and Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), the Athenian general in charge of defending against the invasion. Both are extremely intelligent and formidable, bringing out the strategist in each other in a war that includes brilliant naval tactics and the most violent love scene this side of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
While the choice to not simply continue 300’s story is an admirable one, the sequel gets lost in the appeal of flashbacks. The entire movie is actually one large flashback, which often flashes forward within itself just to be able to flash backward again. It even has flashbacks within the central flashback. The effect is dizzying and convoluted after a while, to the overall movie’s detriment.
Even so, 300: Rise of an Empire has a huge redeeming feature in its two leads. Green, memorable to many as Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd, has a fierce intensity that practically burns the screen. Even more impressive is Stapleton as the military genius Themistocles. As much as Gerard Butler may have made a big splash with his (overrated) performance in the original, Stapleton gives a much stronger one and pilots the movie much more effectively.
Much as the first movie did, 300: Rise of an Empire has its share of near-insulting stupidity but it does smartly get it all out of the way in the first act. The annoying slow-motion shots are still around, as are myriad shots in which blood gushes and splatters onto the camera. Once the story gets going, though, Green and Stapleton elevate a terrible movie to a merely okay one. 300: Rise of an Empire won’t be remembered as well as the original will — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bit better.