300: Rise Of An Empire

I have a pleasant, though vague, memory of seeing 300 on its opening weekend, back in 2007. I went with friends, and was eager to see this R-rated war movie that looked so different from the usual battle epics. And--caught up in the surge of Spartan pride and defiance, the brotherhood and bravado of men at arms--I had a blast.

A sequel to this movie--where nearly every character died--seemed completely preposterous. However, 300: Rise of an Empire is not so much a sequel as it is a companion piece to 300. Like Insidious: Chapter 2 was to Insidious, it aims to surround the story audiences initially embraced, offering an expansion of the first film's world, along with a deeper understanding of the original story. 300: Rise of an Empire does both of these, and offers more, more, MORE in terms of gore, glory and battling brotherhood.

And yet, this sequel pales in comparison to its predecessor.

It turns out the battle of King Leonidas and his 300 was not the only one waged against the self-proclaimed god and Persian conqueror Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Though Greece was not a united nation, Greeks were urged to unite forces by the celebrated warrior General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). After the 300 fell, Themistocles approached the widowed queen, Gorgo (Lena Headey), for naval support as he prepared to wage war against Xerxes' ships, which were commanded by Artemisia (Eva Green), a legendary warrior in her own right.

These are the basics of how the films fit together. Credit to Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, who adapt the screenplay from Frank Miller's graphic novel Xerxes. They manage to create a self-contained narrative that offers links to the first film that will definitely thrill fans. Then the script diverges to give us a cast of new characters, as well as a brooding and bloody backstory for Xerxes. Aside from a lame semi-romantic subplot for Artemisia, all this enriches the movies' mythos in an intriguing way. But with Noam Murro at the helm in place of Snyder, there's a noticeable lack of showmanship.

Before I get into where the film falls flat, I want to sing the praises of the art design, which captures the distinctive style of the first film while bringing in a thrilling new edge. The Greek soldiers swap blue capes for red, but are similarly cut and blood thirsty. The color palette is once more high contrast and surreal. But the real showstoppers are the costumes of Artemisia, who always balances hard and soft in a way that forces the men around her to recognize her as both a warrior and a woman.

Her outfits range from a hardened armor that's sculpted with the suggestion of nipples, to a revealing shirt made of human hair, a draped dress studded with metal that threatens to fall off of her left breast at any moment, and battle gear that's back is studded with spikes… like those of a dragon. Alexandra Byrne and Christine Bieselin Clark constructed costumes that seem reminiscent of the fearsome and telling garbs in Game of Thrones. Between this, the graphically violent battle scenes, and the return of Cersei Lena Headey, 300: Rise of an Empire is a satisfying appetizer for the HBO series' forthcoming season four.

The film's fight scenes are pretty spectacular, too. Their choreography is strong, and the actors by-and-large sell the blows whether they are delivering or taking them. Plus, Murro embraces the addition of 3D by repeatedly placing the action on several planes. There are plenty of the thick sprays of blood and slow-motion violence from the first film, but Murro overdoes it a bit on both counts (especially the latter). It almost becomes a joke as he ramps one action after another down to a super slo-mo speed. In scenes where Themistocles rides a horse over the decks of colliding ships, the slow motion is welcomed, allowing us all to revel in the mayhem and the ribbons of blood that thread through sky and sea. But when a blacksmith is making a spear or a soldier is unfastening a boat's rigging, it doesn't really demand this dramatic technique, yet it receives it.

Funny enough, Murro's biggest misstep is one of restraint. When it comes to slo-mo or the layering on of visual effects, he just can't get enough to the point where it's a matter of diminishing returns. But when it comes to the performance style of his actors, it seems he requested everybody to tone it down a bit, because the portrayals feel less fiery than the first film.

Stapleton suffers the worse. His is a stern but largely mild-mannered hero, who lacks an iconic look or bold nature. While the actor has an intriguing screen presence, his interpretation of Themistocles lacks the intensity and hoorah bravado of Gerard Butler's Leonidas. That energy is sorely missed here. Stapleton is best in his scenes opposite Green's Artemisia, as the two share a love of battle and lusty chemistry. However, Green, too, is a disappointment. Frankly, considering the high-drama nature of the first film, I expected Green to go gleefully gonzo as she did 2012's Dark Shadows, which made her one of that film's few bright spots. Instead, she wears a shirt made of human hair and goes for a steely demeanor with occasional out-lashings of rage. It's fine, but it could have been more fun.

The same could be said of 300: Rise of an Empire, as a whole. It's a suitable companion piece to 300, doling out literal boatloads of action along with enthusiastically graphic violence and tales of the glories of war. It's a solid spectacle between these lush battle scenes and thoughtful art design. But Murro's restraint holds it back from being as brazen and flat-out bonkers as the first film. Thankfully, Headey and Santoro had already established their characters in 300, and here they essentially get a victory lap. Xerxes's comes with an elaborate golden codpiece, some slo-mo swagger, and wonderfully over-the-top sneers. Gorgo's offers a whispering voiceover and swordplay that will have Game of Thrones cheering. But all in all, 300: Rise of an Empire is just not strong enough to stand up to 300.

Kristy Puchko

Staff writer at CinemaBlend.