Less of a sequel than the second, meanwhile-back-at-the-farm half of Zack Snyder’s 2007 blockbuster 300, this is a righteously gory and spectacularly imagined entry into what is almost certain to be a major studio franchise for years to come. It outmaneuvers that other recent Aegean “epic” – Pompeii – in every department. Even with its relatively brief running time, 300: Rise of an Empire suddenly makes genuine Hollywood historical epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur seem tame by comparison. (Not that I’m knocking William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, mind you.) There’s 300 times more bloodshed, battles, rough sex, and even rougher weather here than in Snyder’s original film, and director Murro keeps what feels like an umpteen number of amphoras spinning simultaneously. Amazingly, it all coheres into a ripping good yarn, awash in spurting gobbets of not only testosterone but, this time out, a heaping, scheming helping of estrogen as well.
That would be Eva Green’s fearless and cunning Artemisia, the leader of the Persian fleet. Cloaked in warrior-noir leather couture, she’s hellbent on attacking the Greeks’ watery flanks even as “the 300” are going gloriously to their fabled deaths on the other side of the as-yet-unified country. As the Greek General Themistokles (Stapleton) attempts to unite his country’s various factions into joining the fray – one in which the Grecian navy is wildly outmatched by the Persians – Headey’s narration quickly and thoroughly provides just the right amount of exposition to bring the audience up to speed on what most of us dozed through in our high school history classes.
Suffice it to say, Artemisia holds a death grudge against Themistokles. Greece’s “farmers, poets, sculptors” and everymen are pressed into service to valiantly, and perhaps hopelessly, repel the Persian warships. Virtually everybody gets a limb hacked off, at the very least, or an arrow in the eyeball.
Director Murro is completely up to the task of replicating the inspired and flawless melding of CGI chaos and live-action melees into an utterly believable whole. As with Snyder’s original, Rise of an Empire has a mythic, dreamlike quality to it – fitting, given the subject matter. Slow-motion slaughter rarely looks as artful as it does here, and the digitally-rendered fleets, pitching to and fro atop a madman’s sea, might well render viewers as queasy as their onscreen counterparts, especially when viewed on an IMAX screen (which is, obviously, recommended for this particular film). Murro and cinematographer Simon Duggan also make judicious and occasionally flinch-worthy use of 3-D, as when the Persians lay a trap for the unwitting Greeks via flaming arrows or when whitecaps are made black by oil.
While very much a “hard R” movie, Rise of an Empire is, nevertheless, the perfect sort of film for rainy weekend afternoons. It’s a spectacle right down to its shattered ships and duplicitous warcraft, and this time out the story’s been leavened and enlivened with plenty of old-school girl power. Now how about those Argonauts, already?