When Zack Snyder’s “300” became a smash hit in 2006 it was something of a surprise. But his muscle-bound, testosterone-fueled epic based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name wowed and delighted audiences, spawning catchphrases and even workout trends. As popular as it was, however, no one really asked for a sequel, and why should they? “300” was a complete and satisfying experience at the end of which Leonidas and his bold 300 were really, most sincerely dead.
Well, lack of demand or no lack of demand, “300: Rise of an Empire” arrives in theaters on March 7, just don’t call it a sequel. Or a prequel. If anything, it is a companion piece wherein the action takes place before, during and after the events of “300”. More importantly, don’t get your hopes up that you’ll see what the big Spartan and free Greek hoard at the end of the original gets up to, or even that you’ll see many Spartans at all, ‘cause it’s just not going to happen for you.
This time out Snyder left the directing to Noam Murro, but he did lend his pen to the team adapting Frank Miller’s “Xerxes” (not that he’s much of a factor either) and acts as producer on the film. “300: Rise of an Empire” follows an Athenian general named Themistokles who dreams of a united Greece and ultimately finds himself tasked with leading the charge against Persian forces sent to the waters in the South of Greece (You’ll recall that Leonidas and his 300 went North, to the Hot Gates at Thermopylae).
Though Xerxes is the God King and face of the Persian army, we soon learn that his naval commander Artemisia, a greek-born lady bent on vengeance, is both the brains and brawn behind his operation, and the big bad with whom Themistokles must concern himself, and it’s fortunate she’s there to give the film the necessary dose of bada**, because Themistokles may be a brilliant strategist and pretty tough dude, but he and his forces lament how much they pale in comparison to the Spartans far too frequently to really rally the audience behind them, though they do manage to remind us what we already know.
As the storied Spartans go, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and Dilios (David Wenham) return albeit very briefly, seemingly to remind us how much cooler the Spartans are. Though we get some voice over from Queen Gorgo, the film wastes Dilios and his one good eye, giving him nothing to do but point Themistokles in the Queen’s direction a couple of times.
The film might have succeeded without the Spartans and their thirst for a beautiful death if it didn’t remind us what we are missing so often, and it remembered what made “300” so great in the first place. Yes, the Spartans, their washboard abs and battle moves were a significant factor. But so too were the tastes of Spartan culture and the endlessly quotable lines––having David Wenham deliver voiceover perfectly doesn’t hurt either––and those elements are sadly missing here. We learn that the rest of the Greek city-states think the Spartans are a bit kooky and that they stand around and argue about Democracy a lot, but not much else exists to make them tangible the way Leonidas and the 300 were.
The film does manage to deliver on the Persian culture front and makes the backstory of Xerxes and the fierce Artemisia a truly engaging one. As Artemisia, Eva Green nabs the glory to be had here as the beguiling rock men break themselves against and a worthy adversary for Themistokles. Their rivalry keeps the movie watchable and even entertaining, in spite of itself. And considering that we see Themistokles ride a horse across a series of ships (some of which are on fire) embroiled in battle in the churning ocean to get to Artemisia for a best-on-best battle, that is saying something.
If the filmmaking team felt like they needed to ratchet up the blood and the fight scenarios to try to best “300” they managed said ratcheting but fell far short of landing in the same league as their predecessor.