In 2006, Zack Snyder took the movie world by storm with “300,” a muscular, testosterone-fueled adaptation of a Frank Miller swords-and-sandals graphic novel which took Robert Rodriguez’s“Sin City” concept—painting the comic book pages right onto the screen—to the next level, and arguably, its zenith. It was something of a game-changer and surprise runaway hit, cementing Snyder’s status as a tentpole-worthy filmmaker, grossing $450 million worldwide and transforming March into the early blockbuster season it is now.
As with any box-office success, the studio’s avaricious appetite for more was whet and a sequel was quickly green lit. Eight tardy years later, the belated sequel “300: Rise Of An Empire” arrives in theaters, its momentum all but nonexistent. And just as faded as the sheen of its former sinewy glory, so is the spark of inspiration that made its sweaty predecessor if not worthwhile, at least marginally entertaining. Acting as prequel, sidequel, concurrent-quel and proper sequel, 'Rise Of An Empire' begins before the events of “300,” then pivots alongside them, and eventually surpasses them to tell the next chapter of Persian imperialists trying to overthrow Greece. If “300” was the story of the prideful Spartans facing the Persians on their own terms only to die a beautiful death (but one ultimately in vain), then ‘Empire’ is the near-contemporaneous tale of Athenian soldiers trying to unite the nation against the Indo-European invaders while Sparta goes off to war.
Ambitious in its storytelling aims and scope, 'Rise Of An Empire' is nevertheless still fairly muddled with over-expository voice-over, back story and shifting POVs. Written by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (based on Frank Miller's graphic novel "Xerxes"), the movie is equally as (if not more) interested in the origins of its villains than it is its heroes and this is because the baddies are superficially much more interesting than the bland “fight for glory and freedom” protagonists, but ultimately they’re just campier, but not much more well-drawn. 'Rise Of An Empire' begins by running down the events of how mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, again reprising the role from the first film) came to power. His tale overlaps with that of the Greek general warrior Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) and how he fought off Xerxes father’s army decades earlier. This in turn sets the stage for the manipulative and vengeful Artemisia (a haughty, scenery-chewing Eva Green), who is revealed as the implacable puppet-master behind Xerxes transformation into an unstoppable deity.
Shifting to almost present day, narratively speaking, Xerxes’ army descends on Greece again, the Spartans you knew and loved so much march off towards their inevitable fate, and Themistokles is left to not only convince Greek bureaucrats against surrender, but to fight off Xerxes’ armies at sea (where most of the movie’s battles are set). But as theoretically inventive as interweaving the plot with the history of its forebear is, and as different as its sea battles are from the ground war fought in the original, at the end of the day “300: Rise Of An Empire” is forged from the exact same irons, thematically, emotionally and narratively (read: it’s pretty much the exact fucking movie note for note). Only this time the metals have totally cooled and oxidized providing none of the same temperature, intensity or rousing zeal that made the original so attractive to even the casual fan (it’s not a terrific movie by any stretch, but still engaging for what it is).
From the outside, director Noam Murro seems an odd choice for the “300” sequel given that his only feature-length film before this was the talky, 2008 indie drama “Smart People.” But Murro’s bread and butter is actually the world of slick advertising and high-concept commercial work for clients like Adidas, Stella Artois, Nike, Hyundai and Volkswagen. So the filmmaker is actually quite at home amongst the effects and visual gimmickry. And yet stylistically, 'Rise Of An Empire' is just as played and familiar. No amount of “cool” speed-ramping, slow-motion fighting or explosive digital blood eruptions (of which there are many), can infuse the movie with much vigor and so none is delivered.
As alluring and entertaining as Eva Green is initially, her overwrought vamping eventually wears out its welcome; especially as the movie cannot reconcile the fact that tonally, she appears to be acting in an entirely different film from the overly-sincere Greek warriors (a gratuitous sex-scene with a naked Green would be the movie’s only delight if it weren’t so ridiculously dumb and out of place with the rest of the picture; the nudity also so shameless you actually feel bad for this gorgeous French vixen who deserves much better). Whereas “300” solidified Gerard Butler’s status as a heroic leading man (only to melt just as his six-pack abs did), the protagonist here, Themistokles, is comparatively a blank canvas dud. Written in the broadest and blandest of strokes, shouting throaty, leftover platitudes about honor, victory, glory, etc, Sullivan Stapleton is a total bore in this ironically thankless male lead role. ‘Empire’ tries to inject much-needed heart into its story by adding a father/son dynamic played by Callan Mulvey and up-and-coming English actor Jack O'Connell, but this tangent is also just as uninspired and routine as every other element of the movie. Spartans Lena Headey and David Wenham reprise their roles from the original in supporting roles, but do little other than marginally orient viewers already familiar with the original.
Scored by Junkie XL, the film is mercifully free of the propulsive, big-beat electronica the Dutch composer is known, but the score is as anonymous as it would have been if written by any number of the faceless Hans Zimmer disciples who usually crank out such work. Shot by DP Simon Duggan, his contributions to the now-customary visual template is a bluer patina and pervasive digital 3D dust that seems to float through every frame for what appears to be no real reason other than to create a sense of faux-depth.
Forgettable and only mildly entertaining, “300: Rise of An Empire” seals its own fate at the initial story level by being so deeply invested in its own mythmaking and playing it super safe. To deviate stylistically (or otherwise) would be refreshing, but totally incongruent. And so rather than trying to break the mold, Murro’s movie embraces its rote lot, but at the expense of anything interesting or compelling. Story wise, ‘Rise Of An Empire’ has absolutely nothing new to say other than go through the pedestrian motions of articulating boring character origins and so it’s easy to be cynical about its motivations. Continuing the story of beloved characters while sometimes tiresome is at least understandable from a business perspective. Feeding into the fable with dull, half-hearted characters in the same milieu just kills the legend before it can even begin. And that’s, well, bad business, above and beyond being ill-advised. The “300” sequel might verbalize how the ‘Empire’ came into power, but so tedious and un-excitingly executed is the tale, it’s doubtful anyone will be singing songs about this kingdom ever again. [D+]