Friday, March 14, 2014

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE Delivers Solid Sequel

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE Review:

- 300 gets a lot of flack and ridicule these days, but when it came out - and you know this to be true - it was badass as hell. Zack Snyder's over-the-top vision of ancient warfare, coupled with the legendary Frank Miller's knack for gritty, alpha-male storytelling, made for a film that was, at the least, not quite like anything we'd seen before.

Now, RISE OF AN EMPIRE could have been a total cash-in. And the lack of Snyder at the helm, the fact that this comes a full nine years after the original, and the fact that it's been oft-delayed and restarted all hinted at potential disaster. But, good news! - the 300 sequel (well, sort of - it actually takes place in parallel with the original's story) is actually a pretty entertaining, well-made flick. Any fans of the original will enjoy this one. And while it may feel a bit like a retread, the presence of some excellent actors, and a primarily oceanic setting, gives this one a unique feel and personality.

The story takes place during and around that of 300. In that film, Gerard Butler's Leonidas led his over-matched band of 300 Spartans to battle against the conquering forces of the god-king Xerxes. In this film, we follow the larger war being waged between Xerxes and his Persian armies versus all of Greece. We follow the Athenian admiral Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) as he attempts to take the fight to Xerxes. He tries to recruit various nation-states to aid in his cause, but when he gets to Sparta, Queen Gorgo (Lena Heady, reprising her role from the original) informs him that Leonidas has already taken his men to attack the Persian armies. Themistocles rallies what troops he does have to fight Xerxes on the high seas, via naval attack. But to do so, he's got to go through the merciless Persian general Artemisia (Eva Green), who commands Xerxes' fleets.

While Stapleton's Themistocles is the movie's main character, make no mistake - this is Eva Green's movie. As Artemisia, Green is just plain awesome. She kicks ass, takes names, and looks great doing it. Her character has a pretty interesting backstory to boot - a slave girl who was taken in by the Persian king, who helped a young prince Xerxes to come out of his shell when his father was murdered, and aided in his transformation from geek to god ... only to realize that she may have created a monster. Suffice it to say, Green pretty much owns it in the movie - barking orders, lobbing off heads, and seducing hapless rivals (sometimes all three at the same time!) with relish. After seeing the film, I couldn't help but think that perhaps there was a missed opportunity in not casting Green as Wonder Woman.

Stapleton is pretty solid, but he comes off as a bit of a pushover as compared to Green's more formidable Artemisia. Still, he's got some gravitas, and he's a fine actor. The best scene of the film - which he and Green both nail (so to speak) - is an over-the-top negotiation/seduction between Themistocles and Artemisia that is a true clash of the titans. It's no surprise, of course, that Artemisia comes out on top (so to speak). But Stapleton, while not as charismatic or as amusingly insane as Butler's Leonidas, does lend an air of sophistication to the proceedings.

I also really enjoyed Lena Heady (as usual) reprising her role as Gorgo. Heady is just fantastic at these sorts of roles, and she hasn't missed a beat since 300. She plays a small but key role here, and she owns some of the movie's best and biggest moments. I also enjoyed seeing David Wenham return, even if only for a small role. If you recall, he's the dude who narrates 300 and, due to his gravitas-filled voice, was clearly born to narrate badass movies about ancient Greece.

Noam Murro directs, and at first glance, you wouldn't be able to tell that it wasn't Zack Snyder. The look and feel of the original 300 is essentially reproduced here. However, what this movie is missing are those absolutely jaw-dropping visual moments that Snyder had in the original. RISE OF AN EMPIRE has plenty of cool visuals, but the action feels a little generic, overall, as compared to the first film. Murro emulates Snyder's trademark speed-up/slow-down maneuvers, but they feel sort of arbitrarily thrown into the mix here, and lack the desired wow factor. Part of the problem is that some of the film's naval battles just feel repetitive after a while. While the sight of naval warfare makes for some epic moments, it loses its novelty after a while, and you yearn for some good ol' fashioned sword-against-shield combat. Luckily, the movie does have at least a couple of good hand-to-hand battles - accompanied by a few genuinely "oh $%&^!" moments - to satiate the bloodlust of the 300 faithful (don't worry - it's all cartoonish/comic-booky and in good fun).

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE delivers some satisfying action, recaptures some of the fun of 300, and features a must-see performance from Eva Green. Ultimately, it drags a bit and loses momentum - there just aren't enough twists or interesting plot developments - and Themistocles is a little too bland - to sustain interest for the film's entire running time. But this remains a surprisingly pretty-good companion piece to an iconic action movie.

My Grade: B

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