DIRECTOR: Noam Murro (though rumors have it this is as much Zack Snyder's film)
SHORT VERSION: Wait, that was. . . actually pretty good?
Yeah, I'm as shocked as you are.
LONG VERSION: Director Zack Snyder (of WATCHMEN and MAN OF STEEL fame) first exploded onto the blockbuster scene when he turned a later-period Frank Miller graphic novel into a pop culture phenomenon. Aside from capturing the "comic brought to life" aesthetic better than almost any other film before or since, Snyder's most notable contribution was in turning a not-terribly-good bit of heroic facism into an actual workable film narrative - as well as giving Queen Gorgo, a character who barely appeared in Miller's book, a much-expanded role, including one of the biggest "F*** YEAH!" moments of the entire movie.
RISE OF AN EMPIRE plays out almost as though someone looked at that concept of character expansion/improvement and decided to make entire movie like it.
Functioning as a prequel, a parallel story, and a partial sequel to the original 300, RISE loses a lot of the focus and clear purpose that made Snyder's breakout film so memorable, but what it offers in place is a welcome load of context. We're given the history behind Xerxes, his rise to power after the death of his father by the hand of Athenian general Themistocles at the Battle of Marathon, and his manipulation by naval commander Artimesia into rekindling a war that his father had warned him against. Likewise, we're given the bigger picture of the rest of Greece's response to the Persian invasion as the Spartans make their stand at Thermopylae. This primarily takes shape in the wily-but-woefully-outnumbered Themistocles buying time on the seas against Artimesia's forces as he waits for the eventual death of Leonidas and his men to spur the rest of Greece into uniting to repel the invaders.
It's almost like the film-makers here decided to turn the entire conceit of the first film on its ear with this added background. And I'm not gonna lie, I REALLY like the idea of this movie essentially rolling its eyes at the macho posturing and militant narcissism of Sparta, which was played straight in 300 but here is revealed to be a fatal flaw that the more intellectual Athenian uses to the advantage of his entire nation. I also appreciate that Xerxes is revealed to be more Prince John than Darth Vader, a lesser ruler of greater sires given to childish tantrum even as he reminds his subjects of his status as God-king - a title he only has thanks to Artimesia's machinations.
And here we get to the real feather in this film's cap - as written, Artimesia is easily the most viscerally compelling character in the franchise. She's a former Greek slave (important reminder of fact, considering how "Freedom!"-happy the Greeks are, and one that the film makes no apologies for, adding a welcome shade of gray) who was adopted by a Persian emissary - Mr. "This Is Madness!" from the first film, no less - now bent upon vengeance against the men who slew her family and defiled her youth. Her grievance is genuine, her anger is as sympathetic as her genocidal methods are horrifying, and she's given all the best lines of the film.
But it's Eva Green's performance, a raw and tempestuous command of the role, that makes this character a warrior goddess for the ages. Green has been on the cusp of super-stardom ever since she helped James Bond join the 21st century as Vesper Lynd in CASINO ROYALE (I'll never understand how she didn't immediately become THE go-to "sultry female lead" after that), and her role in RISE OF AN EMPIRE feels like her finally taking off. Green doesn't just own the screen every time she appears in the film, she utterly emasculates it. It doesn't hurt that she's a stunning beauty who's able to convincingly sell the "I am woman, kicker of asses!" bit, but her acting is the perfect blend of passion, camp, and genuine commitment that this material requires. In fact, the biggest flaw the movie has - other than some awkward exposition that it has to cram into 108 minutes - is that it's hard to find a match for Artimesia anywhere else in the cast.
I'll give Sullivan Stapleton's performance as Themistocles some props though - he purposefully avoids trying to be "Leonidas 2.0," opting for a more considering and reserved (but honestly emotional) understatement, which works for most of the film, but feels a bit off when he has to give one of the requisite "Big Shouty Pre-Battle Speeches" - though even here, he lets his voice come across as raw, cracking, and genuine rather than the reverberating roar most leading men go for, selling the more modest origins of his character and his stature as a bit of an everyman (albeit one who does a ton of P90X, apparently).
However, there's no escaping Artimesia's utter dominance of this film. The only other character that seems to linger on the story so effectively even when not on-screen is Lena Headey's Gorgo (partly because she's acting as narrator), which is a highly interesting dynamic. Ironically enough, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE - a movie about a lot of sweaty, muscly men yelling and swinging swords at each other as nations and empires clash - actually positions women as easily the most powerful players in this game.
Speaking of irony, it doesn't escape me that I've gone some seven paragraphs into a review of a 300 film without mentioning the action. RISE adds enough to keep it from feeling tired after seven years of exposure and imitators, particularly with some deliberate use of hand-held shots and a compelling new battlefield. Naval warfare doesn't see much exposure in Hollywood action films, and this film makes all its engagements unique, compelling, and visually gorgeous. And as a bit of a connoisseur of choreographed combat, there's some seriously impressive swordplay going on.
Anyone who's seen the trailers will know that newcomer Noam Murro has a canny ability to replicate the highly stylized violence that Snyder popularized in the first movie, though there's rumor that Snyder ghost-directed a good chunk of this, particularly in post-production. Snyder also co-wrote the screenplay, and the female dominance of this film shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering his choices made with the initial 300, and the way he's fixated on strong female characters in his previous films (even his DAWN OF THE DEAD remake). The more you look at his filmography, the more Snyder seems like a passionate feminist perpetually stuck in the body of a teenage boy.
I'm not sure that's the ideal person to be helming epics with any sort of "historical" bent, but that combination makes for a kick-ass action movie.
BONUS: Eva Green and Sullivan Stapleton's. . . erm, unique take on the requisite "Join me or die" exchange. Now that is a good use of 3D.