Love it or hate it, 300 changed things. It presented the biggest slow-mo reinvention since The Matrix, to the point where "speed-ramping" is now a common term among cinephiles. The film also introduced us to the badassness of Gerard Butler, before he inexplicably crapped all of that away on a string of awful rom-coms. What's more, it made a ton of money with an opening date in March. That month was nothing special until 300 turned it into a kind of testing ground for Hollywood. Over the past several years, March has become the month for films that are too big for the arthouse circuit, too small for the summer season, not Oscar-friendly enough for the awards season, and not bad enough for January/February. It's become a month for some of the more experimental and interesting films by mainstream standards, such as Hot Tub Time Machine, The Adjustment Bureau, Rango, Paul, and of course, Zack Snyder's own Watchmen and Sucker Punch. I didn't even like all those movies I just listed, but I appreciate that they were all (to varying degrees) weirder and bolder efforts that might easily have fallen by the wayside if March hadn't been established as the ideal release window for them.
Getting back to 300, it was also the breakout film for Zack Snyder, who's turned out to be a tremendously controversial director. Though I will admit that 300 had some crippling faults (as did Watchmen, and Sucker Punch, and Man of Steel...), I'm always among the rare few who stands up for Snyder as a director. In fact, I'd argue that the main problems with 300 had more to do with Frank Miller, the comic storytelling master who completely lost his damned mind sometime in the late '90s. Though Miller still has enough goodwill from the '80s to keep on coasting, his work of late has been increasingly misogynistic and xenophobic. 300 -- the book and the movie -- featured chiseled and charismatic white people against a Persian army that was brazenly garish and defiantly void of historical accuracy. This from the same author who wrote "Holy Terror," which was described by Miller himself as a work of anti-Islamic propaganda. I rest my case.
Getting back to Snyder, I won't be trying too hard to defend him as a filmmaker in this review. That's in large part because Snyder didn't direct this picture. Yes, it seems that Snyder was unavailable, having been contracted by WB to whip the DC Comics universe into a worthy cinematic rival for Marvel. Instead, Snyder co-wrote the picture, stayed on as a producer, and handed off the directorial reins to Noam Murro, an Israeli filmmaker who's only two obscure indie films away from being a complete newcomer. Then again, Snyder didn't get to where he is now (for better or worse) by going with the safe choice.
Anyway, 300: Rise of an Empire is being billed as a sequel, though it's really more like an extension. The narrative takes place all around the previous film, going before, during, and after the Battle at Thermopylae. Though Leonidas only appears in recycled footage, we do get some significant reprises from 300 alumni Rodrigo Santoro, Lena Headey, and David Wenham. I could swear that Snyder himself cameos as a Persian soldier who gets slaughtered by Headey in the closing moments, but I can't confirm that yet. A few other, more minor characters also make appearances, with results that add a nice bit of dimension to some of the last movie's disposable bit parts.
As for the film's new cast, there isn't much to talk about. There's a lieutenant so bland that I don't even think he gets a name, and there's a father/son pairing that's a transparent rehash of a subplot from the previous film. However, there are two new cast members who merit discussion.
One of them is Sullivan Stapleton, here playing the Athenian leading man named Themistocles. Though Stapleton is basically unknown here in the States, he's built up a respectable CV in his native Australia. And you'd know that just from watching this picture, because he tends to struggle with his accent quite a bit. Nothing against Stapleton, I'm sure he's a fine actor and he's got a great career ahead of him, but Themistocles was completely broken from conception to casting. The filmmakers were obviously trying to make another Leonidas, but that lightning was never going to strike twice. There was never any chance that this movie was going to recapture the swagger and charisma that Gerard Butler brought to his role, and the filmmakers would only have been rehashing more ideas even if they succeeded.
On the other hand, we have the new villain. Though Xerxes does get a lot of screen time in this go-round, he's not really the main villain. That role goes to Artemisia, a beautiful and bloodthirsty woman with incredible skill in all types of warfare and combat. Eva Green was absolutely perfect for this character, uniquely suited to play tyrannical insanity and unyielding strength with fiery sexuality. She was always a delight to watch, especially since her overt femininity contrasted so nicely with the franchise's trademark homoeroticism. To wit: Remember when Xerxes came on to Leonidas in the last film? Imagine what that scene would be like if Xerxes was being played by a half-naked Eva Green. Yeah.
I've long held a policy that nude scenes and sex scenes are not a valid reason to seek a film out. There are easier, cheaper, faster, and more enjoyable ways to see boobs online. This is especially true with regards to Eva Green, who's spent so much time naked on camera that anyone could type "Eva Green Nude" into Google Image Search and come up with hundreds of legitimate results, all with way more skin than she shows in this movie. That said, her sex scene in this film is freaking hilarious. Green goes through the whole movie chewing scenery, so when she does it during a sex scene, it's of course going to be comedy gold.
Anyway, this film has all the hypermasculinity, gory slo-mo fight sequences, half-baked political allegory, and other such hallmarks from the previous movie. In fact, as I've already implied a few times, the plot lifts entire scenes and subplots from the previous film wholesale. However, it must be mentioned that Murro does a phenomenal job of aping Snyder's style, delivering fight scenes as good as any in the original film. Plus, the action here is mostly comprised of naval battles, which offers much more variety than the land battles that all took place in the same location.
Also, though both films heavily utilize green-screen and color correction, Murro put his own spin on it. While Snyder bathed his film in red and gold, Murro favored a more blue and grey palette. It creates a nicely moody atmosphere, and contrasts superbly against all the blood and fire on display. Orange-blue contrast is nothing new, of course, but it works incredibly well here.
On the other hand, it bears mentioning that the entire movie -- especially the first act -- is loaded with overwhelming amounts of redundant voice-over. I realize that this was also a device used in the previous film, but the voice-over here is far more amateurish. I also didn't like the screenplay's repetitive nature, using the same flashback scenes and voice-over speeches over and over again for no apparent reason other than to pad out the runtime.
I saw the film in 2D, and I can scarcely imagine how annoying a 3D presentation would be. The visuals were loaded with arrows and spears thrusting toward the screen, to say nothing of all the blood flying everywhere. It seems like exactly the kind of cheap, gimmicky 3D that went out of style around the time of Avatar.
At this point, I'm sure you've noticed that I keep bringing up comparisons with the previous film. This is unavoidable, given the nature of this movie's plot. The narrative wraps itself around the plot of the previous film in such a way that the two are intrinsically linked, with constant callbacks to events that happened over in Thermopylae. If the goal was to make a film that enriched and enhanced the previous story, then mission accomplished. But if the filmmakers wanted to tell a story that worked entirely on its own merit, then they failed terribly.
300: Rise of an Empire brings enough to the table that its creation is justifiable. Even if Sullivan Stapleton wasn't quite up to the task of playing the main lead, Eva Green provided a welcome bit of fresh air, the new visual approach works great, and the naval-based action scenes are a great extension of the previous film's aesthetic. Unfortunately, this film ties itself so tightly to its predecessor that it has little reason to exist on its own.
It was clearly a film made for fans of 300, and those fans should seek this one out immediately. No one else should bother going anywhere near it.