‘300: Rise of an Empire’ Review
Before anything else: the sex.
There is a sex scene in '300: Rise of an Empire' that is an all-timer. Put it right up there on the shelf next to 'Don't Look Now,' 'A History of Violence,' 'Blue is the Warmest Color,' '9 ½ Weeks' and any of the others that make those best-of lists. Actually, put next to that insanity in the pool from 'Showgirls' (you know, with the dolphin statue?), because there's a level of playful absurdity that changes it from a representation of love (or, more accurately, lust) to something of a Broadway choreographer's interpretation of a fight. Like a 'West Side Story' rumble, but with Eva Green moaning and bent over a table with maps and war figurines. A rise of an empire, indeed.
Eva Green isn't the hero of '300: Rise of an Empire,' but she's certainly the star. The other actors hardly even register. Lena Headey shows up for a few minutes as Queen Gorgo again, but it doesn't register next to Eva. 'Rise of an Empire' isn't exactly a sequel – it's a sidequel. It tells the story of a different Persian assault on Greece. As Xerxes (the giant bald dude in chains from the original) is attacking Leonidas at the Hot Gates, Eva Green's Artemisia is leading a naval assault. The movie begins right where the first one ended, then jumps back to before it started, then runs concurrent for a bit and then...I dunno, I kinda lost track. It doesn't really matter, no one's coming to this movie for a history lesson.
The movie is far less engaging than the first '300.' For starters, there's a lot less of a wow factor with this stylized, all greenscreen look than there was in 2007. There's also a lot less of the supernatural stuff – very little magic or mythical beasts. But the film, helmed by commercials director Noam Murro, doubles down on the one thing it has going for it: Eva Green. Born a Greek, but betrayed by them and raised by a Persian (actually, the Persian messenger that Leonidas kicks into the well in '300,') she eventually becomes King Darius' fiercest warrior, handing him severed heads with a smile as he sits on his throne of skulls. (Hell, yeah!)
Darius is eventually killed at Marathon by Themistocles, who is theoretically the main character of this movie, but Sullivan Stapleton is so boring he's hard to root for. In fact, any scene without Eva Green in it is something of a disappointment.
Anyway, Themistocles and Artemisia eventually go head to head and that, once you cut away all the intros and flashes to the other film (yes, Michael Fassbender shows up for a tenth of a second) this conflict is the heart of the movie. It's a series of naval battles, some better shot than others, with a crazy-ass scene of hate sex right in the middle. What's exciting is that Green's Artemisia is very much in charge of this parley with Themistocles. She has, as they say, agency, and some of that agency is demanding to be serviced in a physical way.
Green chomps into this, and every other moment of screen time, with unmatched ferocity. Film purists may light their computers on fire to read it, but she reminded me a bit of Elizabeth Taylor. Maybe because the swords and antiquity reminded me of 'Cleopatra,' or maybe it's just the eyes. Or, perhaps, I was reacting to Taylor's placement as a gay icon, and the fact that during one scene Green is seen wearing an outfit that is half-armor/half-ball gown and ALL FABULOUS.
Most of the fight scenes look cool. Murro goes easy on Zack Snyder's mid-clobber stop-start technique, but it and some of the side-scroller action make an appearance. So do the ribbons of stylized blood, though in 3D it looks more like tomato paste. The helmets and weapons and slow-motion lightning bolts ought to delight anyone who really dug the look of the first picture. Those wondering if Murro has a stamp of his own will have to wait til his next assignment.
'300: Rise of an Empire' is probably a few years too late to make its full impact. Blame comics creator Frank Miller and his slow working method for that. (Producer Zack Snyder should have forced his hand a little harder back when the iron was hot.) Still, compared to lifeless junk like the recent 'Pompeii,' it's great to see a big, violent quasi-historical fantasy epic with such a polished sword.
'300: Rise of an Empire' opens in theaters on March 7.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.