300: Rise of an Empire

Directed By: Noam Murro

Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, and Rodrigo Santoro

"It begins as a whisper... a promise... the lightest of breezes dances above the death cries of 300 men.  That breeze became a wind.  A wind that my brothers have sacrificed.  A wind of freedom... a wind of justice... a wind of vengeance."
-Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey)

With the Oscars now in our rearview mirror, we can fully focus on what lies ahead this year.  More specifically, we can kick off the spring blockbuster season.  Some seven years ago, 300 made a serious splash at the box office and showed that moviegoers do have an appetite for big budget movies outside the summer and holiday seasons.  With each passing year, we've seen more and more blockbusters on the schedule during this time of the year.  2014 marks a particularly loaded year.  In the coming weeks, we're going to see big event movies such as Noah, Divergent, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  Before we get to these movies, we're going back to a familiar place to begin this mini-wave of blockbusters.  We're going back to Sparta.

King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and the brave 300 sacrificed themselves at Thermopylae.  Their beautiful deaths at the hands of the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his soldiers made them martyrs and may have just made them the spark that will unite Greece against the Persians.  Now, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) is ready to bring a wind of freedom and justice to the seas to avenge her fallen husband and brothers.  Before the brave 300 fought and before Leonidas rejected Persia's offer of earth and water, however, there was another Greek hero by the name of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton).  This Athenian general made a name for himself by slaying the Persian king Darius (Yigal Naor), Xerxes's father, at the Battle of Marathon.  On that day, he had a chance to kill Xerxes as well but chose not to do so.  With Leonidas on the march against Xerxes and the coast of Greece under siege by the Persian general Artemisia (Eva Green), Themistocles is regretting this decision right about now.

Though a general in Xerxes's army, Artemisia is Greek by birth.  She's Persian at heart because it was the Greeks who murdered her family and it was the Greeks who enslaved and raped her as a child.  When a Persian takes her in and gives her a sword, the fiery warrior sells her soul to death itself and makes a vow to watch Greece burn.  Once Themistocles puts an arrow in King Darius's heart, Artemisia has all she needs to make her vow a reality.  Xerxes is a grieving son, and Artemisia counsels this vengeful young king that only a god can defeat the proud Greeks.  With this in mind, she sends Xerxes on a ritual that turns him into the god-king and launches an all-out assault on Greece.  Now, only two people stand in her way of reigning hell down upon Greece, Leonidas and Themistocles.  We know what happens with the Spartans and Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae.  The film chronicles Themistocles's dangerous game of naval warfare with Artemisia at the Battle of Salamis.

Whereas 300 focuses on the deeds of a few pawns, 300: Rise of an Empire shows us the whole chessboard of the Persian Wars.  What's really interesting about the film is that it's not a movie just about vengeance for the city-state Sparta.  It's a movie about Greece as a whole.  By choosing to go back chronologically to Marathon and Salamis, director Noam Murro offers a much more compelling tale that expands the franchise's cinematic universe a bit while also providing additional context around the first film.  Full of all the swords and shields for which an action junkie could ever ask, this romanticized view of the historic clashes between the Greeks and Persians hits the spot.  Chock full of ready-made movie quotes and sporting plenty of guts and limbs flying across the screen in 3D, however, the film certainly does have its limits.  Still, 300: Rise of an Empire is some enjoyable popcorn fare.

Of course, the action in 300: Rise of an Empire is second to none.  Swords clash and shields shake time and time again throughout the movie.  The hand-to-hand combat is fast and furious throughout the film with plenty of slow motion, high octane action sequences to emphasize this.  Murro leaves very little time for dialogue and plot development.  What he does in that limited time, however, he does well.  As the epic naval battle sequences unfold, Murro uses that time to try to highlight the strategy behind it all and to show the full scale of the chessboard.  This makes for some pretty engaging cinema.

At the forefront of the film we have two lead actors, Sullivan Stapleton and Eva Green.  For his part as the Athenian general Themistocles, Stapleton brings a different kind of nobility to the film.  Unlike Leonidas, Themistocles fights to live.  He fights with wisdom and strategy underlying every brave decision he makes.  Stapleton perfectly embodies these qualities on screen and endears himself to Leonidas's audience.  For her part as Themistocles's nemesis Artemisia, Eva Green makes for one formidable foe.  She brings hell down upon any man who gets in her way.  Manipulative, cunning, and deliciously evil, Green once again demonstrates that she was born to play villains on screen.  She is easily the most interesting character in the movie.  Stapleton and Green also have some sexual tension on screen that's fun to watch.

After a couple of hours of epic battles, I can say that Themistocles is ready to sit at the table with Leonidas.  I'm not saying that 300: Rise of an Empire is some great film (and neither was 300 for that matter).  I am saying that you'll certainly enjoy it.  This action fantasy movie is the right kind of film to kick off the spring blockbuster season.  300: Rise of an Empire gets a strong 0.06% rating.  Have a couple of rounds of beer with this one.