Joining a long line of sequels “too late to the party” is ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ coming nearly seven years after the original and it’s quite definite ending that left little or no room for the story to move forward in a similar fashion. By similar fashion I mean, two hours of gnarling topless men with capes to cover their backs but none to cover their six-pack abs, duking it out in slow motion and spilling blood like it’s a paintball tournament. So to actually find the sequel rise above my meagre expectations was indeed a surprise, since despite stuffing the shorter running length with plenty of macho posturing that did wonders for the first part, it still tries to weave in bits of plot and character development that surpass anything attempted by the first movie. Granted, the leading man this time is no patch on Butler (missing in action here), but he’s not really trying to play a clone of him either.
Much of the movie takes place concurrently with the events of the first movie, with the prologue and ending set before and after the final stand of Leonidas. So it’s not just the Spartans who are under attack from the Persians led by the ‘God King’ Xerxes (Rodrigo Santos) but the entirety of Greece. The Athenians, a society far more open and tolerant than the Spartans, has their own hero in Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) who fell the Persian king, Darius, during their first attempted invasion of Greece almost ten years before the current events. The Athenians believe in freedom, democracy, human rights, diplomacy but also when the time comes, someone needs to make a stand. But unlike the hardened and well trained Spartan army, theirs mostly comprises of painters, sculptors and poets, hardly a crew to lead against the vicious Naval Admiral of Xerxes, Artemisia (Eva Green). So yet again a bunch of half-naked men with freedom on their mind will face insurmountable odds in slow motion. What are the odds of that happening, twice?
Much of the movie revolves around massive naval battles, with the outnumbered and poorly trained Athenians, use cunning and guile to defeat the behemoth that is the Persian navy. The special effects work in these skirmishes is exemplary and thank fully the use of slow motion and a steady camera allows you to behold all the battles in their gory glory. The use of blood splatter effects however is overdone and soon it looks like everyone’s loaded with bursting tomatoes ready to cover the screen at the swing of a sword. Visually it provides more vistas than the first one did, though the tone remains consistent as the earlier one. The art direction, costumes and background score is magnificent and the grandeur at times quite arresting aesthetically.
By providing origin stories for Xerxes and Artemisia, it does to an extent successfully humanise otherwise two-dimensional villains, played with quite ferocity nonetheless. However the interactions between Themistokles and the Spartan queen, Gorgo (Lena Headly) seem forced and awkward. Scenes were written for Butler originally but he didn’t want to return so Lena Headly had to stand in for him.
Stapleton plays a different version of a leader than Leonidas, a more war-weary, sceptical man, who doesn’t want to embrace death neither for himself nor his fellow men. He’s only trying to protect his country and sees little glory in bloodshed but recognises it as necessary in face of such evil bearing down upon Greece. Yes, Stapleton doesn’t command the screen like Butler did but he’s competent in his own way. Eva Green steals the show with a mixture of rage and raw sexuality, while Rodrigo Santos has that booming voice and amazing physique to appear like a real king. There are various cameos from a bunch of characters from the first movie ranging right from blink-and-miss (Fassbender) to extended cameos (the hunchback, the Persian emissary, the one eyed survivor, etc).
A little lower on the testosterone quotient and more stylish than the first, the sequel doesn’t disappoint. Watch it and then probably read about the real battle of Artemisium.