If you liked 2006’s 300, you will find much to love in this rousing sequel. Though not without its faults, 300: Rise of an Empire delivers exactly what it promises: meticulously choreographed fight sequences punctuated by huge splashes of blood and an unapologetic, un-ironic embrace of martial virtue in defense of freedom.
Rise of an Empire picks up where 300 left off. The Persian madman Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) has claimed the head of the fallen Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), following the deaths of the 300 Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae. We then flash forward to the sacking of Athens by the Persian forces, before flashing backward to Athens prior to its fall (and before the fateful battle portrayed in the first film), where Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) is trying to convince the demos to unite against the Persian menace.
In addition to this scene-setting, we are treated to the origins of Themistocles (who, in this telling, fights with the ferocity of a Spartan hoplite and fired the arrow that felled King Darius in the first Persian invasion), Xerxes (who, in this telling, wandered the desert following his father Darius’ death before declaring himself a Persian God-King), and Artemesia (who, in this telling, was a Greek-born woman that served as the power behind the throne and convinced Xerxes to lay waste to Greece).
Rise of an Empire would’ve been better off sticking to the narrative model crafted by its predecessor: the time-hopping and endless origin stories are a distraction and, I imagine, somewhat confusing to those who aren’t steeped in ancient Greek history.
Granted, screenwriters Zack Snyder (who directed and co-wrote the original movie and serves as a producer here) and Kurt Johnstad (who co-wrote the original) are in something of a tough spot. The naval blockade organized by the Greeks at Artemesium, the focus of this film’s action, happened at the same time the Spartans fought in the pass at Thermopylae.
Furthermore, the creative team had to find a way to reconcile the competing Spartan and Athenian notions of Greek life and the meaning of freedom—no small thing, given that the two city-states would enter into a ruinous conflict with each other a few short decades hence. Still, there must have been an easier way to introduce us to the various conflicts.
Regardless, once the scene is set and the action commences, silly questions like narrative cohesion fall by the wayside. If it’s action you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place. Themistocles loads his men onto triremes—Greek ships that were little more than floating battering rams designed to smash into the sides of other vessels and sink them—and confronts the Persian horde. Commanded by Artemisia (Eva Green), the Persian navy is as fearsomely large as the Persian land force was at Thermopylae. Only Themistocles’ cunning can save the Greeks.
It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers don’t seem particularly interested in naval engagement, as director Noam Murro does a remarkably good job of evocatively portraying the utterly terrifying nature of naval warfare in the ancient world. Triremes smash into Persian ships from both sides, splintering the hulls and sending salty water flooding below decks where slaves furiously row. Yet these movements feel like excuses to bring the fleets close enough together for the armies to engage in swordplay better suited on land.
Eva Green delights as the cunning Artemesia. She so dominates every scene she’s in that Rise of an Empire almost feels as if it is her story rather than a tale of Greek freedom. Stapleton and the rest of his Greeks do an admirable job, but are a step down from 300’s troika of Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender, and Dominic West. Israeli director Murro can’t quite fill the shoes of Snyder, who was too busy working on Man of Steel and its 2016 sequel to direct this film, but there is a definite visual continuity. Murro does a fine job with the material he’s been given.