Movie Review: '300: Rise of an Empire'

Putting the word “Rise” in a movie title is usually the kiss of death as far as quality is concerned, with the notable exception of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  In the case of the “300” sequel, we have decent entertainment with some great stunt work and visual spectacle, but it’s also missing the wit, soul, and charisma of the groundbreaking original.  It’s an expensive movie that mounts some huge visual spectacle, but it also somehow manages to feel like a direct-to-video sequel.  With one exception, it just doesn’t seem like anyone involved in “300: Rise of an Empirecares as much as Zack Snyder and his original crew.

That one exception is Eva Green, who owns this movie lock, stock, and barrel.  She tears through it like a typhoon.  Even if you see the 2D version of the film, she’s still in 3D.  Green plays Artemisia, the Greek expatriate who commands Persia’s naval forces, and is revealed as the secret power behind the throne who set the entire Persian invasion in motion, almost entirely because (a) she hates Greeks, with good reason, and (b) she really enjoys killing people.  The film sprints when she’s onscreen, and trudges in her absence.

She’s bossy.  Very, very bossy.

Alas, nobody else in the cast can hold a candle to Green.  The only actress and character with the necessary firepower is Lena Headey, returning as the aggressively widowed Queen Gorgo of Sparta, and they don’t get any screen time together.  Instead, our primary protagonist is the entirely anonymous Athenian general Themistokles, played by a sleepwalking actor who has “SyFy Original” written all over him.  Maybe it’s unfair to blame the actor, because the film is so badly under-written; there’s no opportunity here for him to do what Gerard Butler did for the original film.  

Frankly, the Athenians, as portrayed in “Rise of an Empire,” just aren’t as interesting as the Spartans were.  They’re actually what King Leonidas disdained in the first movie: part-time soldiers who spend much of their time grousing about how war stinks, and they want to go back to their farms.  The blood-pounding thrill of Sparta’s fearful but glorious warrior culture is missing. 

Themistokles himself certainly knows how to kick Persian butt.  He gets some great action scenes.  The fight choreography here is at least the equal of “300,” if not better, and the blood-spattered daydream visuals remain captivating.  People die beautifully in slow motion, as the action shifts to naval warfare with spectacular results.  Minor characters from the original make welcome returns, thanks to the clever way the screenplay begins before the Battle of the Hot Gates but also extends beyond it.  There’s a lot to like here, if you enjoyed the first movie, but too much of the sequel’s plot structure is borrowed from its illustrious predecessor – once again, a tiny band of Greeks stands against the might of the Persian empire, and look, it’s another father-son team of warriors headed for tragedy!  

A concluding chapter in the trilogy seems all but assured.  Maybe it can find a way to tell a fundamentally different story with the far-out visual toolbox Zack Snyder created.