The rabid cult of fans who love 300 is going to be satisfied, probably even excited, about 300: Rise of an Empire. The movie is colourful, highly stylized, incredibly violent and tons of intense fun.
Others may find it excessive and unrealistic. But that is exactly what 300 was, too. These two movies are both effects-driven entertainments that use real stories from the ancient world to fuel their myth-making fantasies.
The operatic Rise of an Empire actually arches over the heroic story of the Spartans that was told in the more focused 300 in 2006. That makes the new one into a hybrid of prequel and sequel. The filmmakers even layer in actual scenes from 300, along with numerous references to the events that unfold at the Hot Gates during a massive Persian invasion in 480 B.C. Lena Headey is also back in a strong support role as the Spartan Queen Gorgo -- and she narrates part of the film.
Rise of an Empire does suffer from the disappointment of a lesser hero. Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton, as the Athenian general Themistocles, is no match for the charismatic Scottish star Gerald Butler as Leonidas, the Spartan king from 300. Stapleton is low-key when he needs to be hyper-real, as Butler was in battle.
But the new movie does boast a fabulous villain who chews up scenery and sets the screen ablaze. British screen siren Eva Green kicks, kills and crushes her enemies with the panache of Smaug, the dire dragon from The Hobbit movie. Green creates her own kind of desolation in her smoldering, sexualized role as Artemisia, a Greek who has gone over to the Persians to become their most ruthless military leader. With her reptilian moves and fighting skills, Artemisia is merciless to both friend and foe. Even the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) seems wary.
It is Artemisia who masterminds strategies for the vast Persian navy in a sea-going attack, while the land troops are marching on the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. Inspired by the Spartans, Themistocles leads a much smaller fleet of Greek ships against the superior forces of Persia.
There is historical fact buried here, but the script by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad really has little to do with reality. It has more to do with Frank Miller's graphic novel Xerxes, in both facts and stylistic flourish. Like the original 300 -- which also came from a Miller graphic novel -- Rise of an Empire has a comic book propulsion to its storytelling. There are sophisticated themes under the surface, including concerns of family, love, sacrifice and vengeance, but the that surface noise is often deafening as we watch a series of pitched battles. Often in extended slow motion, like a bloodied ballet.
Meanwhile, how you see Rise of an Empire will affect how much you experience it. This is one of those rare movies where the 3D is truly immersive, instead of annoying, and the IMAX option heightens the 'graphic novel' nature of the piece.
Because he was directing Man of Steel when Rise of an Empire went before the cameras, Snyder passed on the directorial reins to little known Noam Murro (whose 2008 debut was Smart People, a forgettable comedy). Murro's job was to make Rise of an Empire look and feel exactly like 300, but mostly on water instead of land.
Murro does exactly that -- turning 300: Rise of an Empire into a compelling companion piece to the original 300.