While stylistically derivative and narratively simplistic, 300: Rise of an Empire is packed with enough entertaining action that it doesn’t completely fail.
The film’s biggest problem: we have seen it before, except that seven years ago, with Zach Snyder directing and the likes of Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender and Dominic West starring, it was almost revolutionary. Now it is familiar.
A grainy and grey color palette broken up by slow-motion spurts of blood and sweat? Check. Mostly naked men swinging swords and flexing impressive muscles? Check. A handful of sexy women scantily dressed? That too. Natural setting simultaneously serving as visual safe haven and perilous precursor of death? Now it’s a sea instead of a mountain. Shaky camera work and copious close ups? Of course.
It’s almost as if new director Noam Murro wanted to Paint By Numbers Zach Snyder’s style.
In so doing, he adds nothing new, gives no additional reason to invest in the 300 storyline, and makes our experience repetitive.
Rise of an Empire’s narrative does much the same. Here we have another undercooked father and son drama, another heroic force heavily outnumbered, and another unbending, lethal leader with complicated plans for long-term victory.
As if that weren’t enough, Murro and writers Kurt Johnstad and Zach Snyder make several unique narrative missteps, the most glaring of which is their opening. Roughly twenty-five of the first thirty minutes are filled with expository voice over, the first round narrated by Queen Gorgo (Lena Headley), while the second comes from Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton). Yes, some of the voice-over is accompanied by visuals of flash-back violence, but it barely matters; it is a slow start to a movie that will thrive or fail on action.
That isn’t even the worst part. What is? One of the first shots show us Queen Gorgo on a boat, speaking to a squad of fighters, thereby solving the film’s central mystery before we even know about it, a fact that removes all suspense from the narrative.
Which is one reason this story is too simplistic. The other? It is part run-of-the-mill fight for freedom and part formulaic revenge tale. There are no larger concepts here. No thematic insight.
And I haven’t even mentioned the non-sensical sex scene that breaks Themistokles’ thinly defined character in almost every imaginable way.
For all of that, 300: Rise of an Empire includes enough heart-poundingly gruesome action accompanied by impressive visual effects that we are never bored.
Eva Green’s scene stealing performance as Artemisia keeps our attention, as well.
Green and the myriad action sequences ensure this film doesn’t completely fail.