Where's Sparta when you need to make an empire rise?


Film Review © 2014 by Trip Reynolds


Directed by Noam Murro. Screenplay by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad. Based on the graphic novel "Xerxes" by Frank ("Sin City," "Batman Returns," "Electra," etc.) Miller. Produced by Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, Gianni Nunnari, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, and Thomas Tull. Co-produced by Alex Garcia and Roee Sharon. Executive produced by Mary P. Ewing, Craig J. Flores, Jon Jashni, Stephen Jones, and Frank Miller. Executive in charge, David Varod.

Starring: Sullivan Stapleton (as the heroic, Themistocles), Eva Green (as the evil, Artemisia), Lena Headey (as the bereaved and avenging wife of King Leonidas, Queen Gorgo), Hans Matheson (as Aeskylos), Callan Mulvey (as best friend of Themistocles, Scyllias), David Wenham (as Dilios), Rodrigo Santoro (as the evil god king, Xerxes), Jack O'Connell (as Calisto), Andrew Tierman (as Ephialtes), Igal Naor (as father of Xerxes, King Darius), Andrew Pleavin (as Daxos), Peter Mensah (mentor and combat instructor to Artemisia, Persian Emissary), Ben Turner (as General Artaphernes), Ashraf Barhorn (as General Bandari), Christopher Sciueref (as General Kashani), and host of others including a CGI cast of thousands of people, places, and things.


If you're not familiar with the previous film,"300," you might need a road map to figure out what's going on in this film. Better yet, go to Wikipedia and read the historical account which served as the basis for Frank Miller's graphic novel, which served as the basis for the previous film, "300." Then, read the subsequent account of the war that followed. Lena Headey, reprises her role as Queen Gorgo, the bereaved and avenging wife of King Leonidas, and Headey provides a necessary narration that begins where the previous film ended. Headey's narration supplements the script by providing a linear structure to guide audience about the who, when, where, why, and what actually caused an empire to rise. To support the narration, film should have included on-screen animation of detailed maps superimposed over "birds eye" views of actual screen footage to clarify the scope of battles taking place. Why is this important?

Sparta, and no other city-state of ancient Greece, was the dominant military power. During its heyday, the pre-eminence of Sparta's military was legendary and feared throughout the known world. However, this sequel does not focus on Sparta. Instead, film shifts its attention to Themistocles, and the challenges he faced as Athens greatest politician and general, and his subsequent battle against the Persian invaders lead by the evil Xerxes. Although this re-direction is important historically, film fails to deliver the cinematic excitement generated from watching the balletic fighting skills and the technical prowess exhibited by the Spartan army. As skillfully lead by Themistocles, the Athenian navy clearly exhibited better fighting skills and battle strategy than the Persians, but they were outnumbered and losing the war.

300: Rise of an Empire

Unfortunately, script makes us wait and wait for the Spartans to come to the rescue, and makes the Spartans a backstory until the final fifteen minutes of the film. It's the balletic fighting skills displayed by the Spartans in the first film that captured our interest; and although interesting, the less-than-Spartan-like fighting skills of the Athenians lacked the compelling intoxication of the previous film. Minus the precision fighting skills of the Spartans, this film leaves you feeling shortchanged.

The story? Film begins by giving us the backstory of the how the war began. Essentially, Themistocles killed Xerxes father, King Darius, which begat the creation of the evil God-King Xerxes. Years before the creation of Xerxes, the Hoplites (Spartan citizen-soldiers) raped Artemisia's (Eva Green) mother, killed her parents, and then raped her for years, and left her for dead, only to be saved by a Persian Emissary (Peter Mensah), who became Artemisia's mentor and combat instructor, which propelled her to become Persia's most lethal warrior and King Darius' highest general. To futher seize control, Artemisia used the death of King Darius to manipulate his dimwhitted son, Xerxes, into becoming a pseudo-God-King, while behind-the-scenes she exercised true power over the Persian Army.

For thousands of years, military generals from around the world have considered these battles between the city-states of Greece and the Persian Army as the pinnacle of military strategy, for both land and sea. Unfortunately, the spectacle of such assessment was not represented by this film.

King Leonidas
(Gerald Butler)

Acting by most players was competent but not exceptional. Stunts were competent but not exceptional. Camera angles to capture stunts and action were, as expected, consistent with the first film, but generally failed to push the envelop. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen a bunch of the better shot selections. Speeches made by Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) to rally the troops seemed clichéd. Conversely, similar speeches by King Leonidas (Gerald Butler) to rally "his" troops in the first film were inspiring, mirco (confined to his beloved Sparta) and not macro (for the entire Greek state), and deathly serious. As presented in both films, the city-states of Greece were proudly independent; however, King Leonidas conveyed an oligarchic if not incestuous love for his Sparta. He knew he and Sparta were the best, everyone knew he and Sparta were the best, but again, given that Sparta was the best, film leaves you feeling shortchanged.

"300: Rise of an Empire" also offers another kind of violence, sexual violence, as realized in the very rough-and-tumble, with nudity, intensely sexual, but non-pornographic sex scene between Themistocles and Artemisia. Arguably, it's a rape scene, but who raped whom given the frequent juxtaposition of control, on top or bottom, in front of or behind, with hands mutually and tightly gripping on each others throats?

Artemisia manifests her control over Themistocles.

Themistocles manifests his control over Artemisia.

Ultimately, the scene wasn't about sex, it was about power, control, and who would rule whom. Film is "Rated R" for "strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language," but sexual interaction between Themistocles and Artemisia was not equal to graphic violence in the film and it should have been. As portrayed, Themistocles and Artemisia were fierce leaders, graphic in their use of violence, and the expression of their sexuality should have been equally graphic, or perhaps, intensely passionate. Eva Green (Artemisia) and Sullivan Stapleton (Themistocles) are key figures in this film, and they drive the storyline; while Lena Headey (Queen Gorgo) and Rodrigo Santoro (Xerxes) barely appear in supporting roles. As portrayed by Eva Green, Artemisia would have easily bested Queen Gorgo, because contrary to film's ending, Lena Headey's Queen Gorgo was never presented as a warrior, which conflicts with her Spartan heritage.

Will there be a third film? Let's hope not, unless the intent is to profile Spartan history and mythology. As with the "300," this sequel also used the super-imposition chroma key technique to mirror the imagery of the original graphic novel; and as expected, other filmmakers have attempted to exploit this technique, but not nearly as well. Unfortunately, mediocrity often occurs when everyone jumps on the band wagon.

Film is directed by-the-numbers by Noam Murro. As scripted and filmed, the "300" mirrored the graphic novel by presenting strange looking beasts and demonic looking humanoid combatants. Conversely, "300: Rise of an Empire" is far more traditional by restricting combatants to humans vs. humans. As expected, special effects and technical aspects were solid but with un-lifelike sets and backgrounds. Although digital backgrounds and CGI are common with these kinds of films, and provide certain cinematic efficiencies, the actual spectacle of "real grass" and "real trees" and "real people" and "real ships" is . . . better, and more believable, and more costly. Film editing by David Brenner and Wyatt Smith is crisp, with a running length of 102 minutes.

Recommendation: First, buy the "300" on BlueRay/DVD. Then, see this film at a matinee in a local theater of your choice.