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Movie Review: “300: Rise of an Empire”

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When it hit theaters back in 2006, there was little doubt that “300″ was an innovative piece of cinema.

Not only did it open the floodgates for similarly themed television shows and films, such as the “Spartacus” series on Starz, but it also launched the

Sullivan Stapleton as Themistokles in "300: Rise of an Empire"

Following in Leonidas’ footsteps… and through a field of dead dudes.

careers of several Hollywood mainstays as well. The most pertinent examples were director Zach Snyder — who went on to helm both “Watchmen” and “Man of Steel” — and star Gerard Butler — whose momentum went the other way and has since halted, but only because of some ill-fated rom-coms and action flicks.

So, after the expensive gamble ($65 million budget) by Warner Brothers paid off ($200 million domestic gross and millions more from DVD and Blu-ray sales), the next logical step would have been to make a sequel, right?

Well, a sequel would of made a lot of sense, at least from a business perspective, IF they would have put it out in a timely fashion. I hate to say it, but waiting almost eight years to release “300: Rise of an Empire” was the worst thing Warner Brothers could have done. Especially since they eventually gave it a theatrical release and didn’t send it straight-to-video or to VOD. And ESPECIALLY since the two movies are almost identical in every way.

Well, except for their entertainment value, that is.

Adapted from a 1998 graphic novel by acclaimed comic book creator Frank Miller, “300” was based on a Greek legend that told the tale of 300 Spartan warriors who defended their homeland from a much larger Persian army in 480 B.C. Miller’s story and artwork, which was in part inspired by the 1962 film “The 300 Spartans,” was thrilling and unique by itself.

However, when it was coupled with Snyder’s love and faithfulness to the source material, which seemed to meticulously recreate Miller’s work by shooting every shot in front of a green screen, the film leapt off the screen in a stunning combination of old-fashioned storytelling and new school digital filmmaking capabilities. Even the excessive use of slow-motion shots (which is usually inexcusably annoying) turned out to be excusable, as it added a level of beauty and drama to the film. It was a testosterone-filled, action-packed adventure, full of chiseled men with sharp swords, that probably remains in the DVD collection of 4 out of 5 man caves across the planet.

In other words, it’s the antithesis of the chick flick and watching it has become a rite of passage for frat boys, athletes and soldiers alike. This is all due to its gory battle scenes and heaviness on masculine camaraderie.  After viewing it, men everywhere shout at the top of their lungs, “This is Sparta!,” a la King Leonidas. It was the perfect marriage of hype and substance and it sure made a LOT of drachmas.

So, I ask again — why did it take SO LONG to make this sequel?

My guess is because of the fact that the end of “300″ didn’t exactly provide a big window for a sequel story wise. Without playing the role of “spoiler,” let’s just say that the conclusion of the first film wasn’t exactly a Greek-friendly one. Therefore, the sequel would’ve either had to be a prequel, further fleshing out the story of the 300 Spartans, OR a continuation of the war after the Spartans and the Persians had it out at that ill-fated Battle of Thermopylae.

Would you believe that “300: Rise of an Empire” is both a sequel AND a prequel?

Just writing that last sentence confuses me… and I’ve already seen the film. The story at the heart of “300: Rise of an Empire” is a mish-mash of

Rodrigo Santoro as the God-King Xerxes in "300: Rise of an Empire"

Xerxes reflects in his hot tub.

stock footage from the first film and newly-filmed scenes, which frustratingly tells the tale of a group of Greeks from Athens and THEIR involvement in the war against the apparently unbeatable Persian Empire and the “God-King” Xerxes (played again by Rodrigo Santoro).

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

All-in-all, no matter whether you present the film as a sequel or a prequel, it’s basically a blatant rip-off/shameless remake off the first film.

From the film’s style to its content, it’s as if director Noam Murro (in only his second film) watched Snyder’s original, took extensive notes, and then proceeded to copy it — shot-for-shot. There are countless slow-motion sequences, in which Greek warriors easily cut through Persian after Persian,  that all seem to speed up to a hyper-state right before the point of impact… just like the first film. When the sword finally does slice through flesh and bone, the digital blood spurts out in a geyser of computer wizardry. Actually, it’s almost as if the technology has digressed since the first film came out almost a decade ago. Or maybe it just seems TOO familiar and it has all become rather blase.

Whatever the case may be, the action scenes — which make up at least half of the (too long) 102 minute running time — are uninspiring and lifeless. Actually, let me stop all this nonsense and just cut to the chase.

Simply put, this film is straight-up boring.

I mean, the storyline tries to build on the events of the first film by following a bunch of Athenian warriors, led by General Themistokles (“Strike Back” star Sullivan Stapleton), as they attempt to thwart Xerxes and his Persian soldiers from taking over Greece. The screenwriters (Snyder himself returns with Kurt Johnstad) attempt to create a viable companion piece to go with the first film, but it ends up falling flat. The ground battles are replaced with naval warfare and (even though it’s supposedly loosely based on Miller’s upcoming follow-up comic series “Xerxes”) the larger-than-life villain from the first film is for the most part replaced by Xerxes’ second-in-command — the beautiful and deadly Artemesia (played seductively by Eva Green).

The film does start out on an intriguing level — with the story of how Xerxes became such an imposing mutant of a leader — and is told in typical grandiose fashion. However, this is one of the few bright spots and it ends up being far too short of a sequence. After this mystical flashback, it’s all

Artimesia vs. Themistokles in "300: Rise of an Empire"

Ship happens.

downhill from here and the shot-for-shot remake begins.

Like I said, most of the battles take place with the sea as a backdrop, which only succeeds in helping to leave behind the true spirit of the first film. The choreography of the fight scenes in “300″ were beauteous to behold, but with a bevy of naval formations from this film replacing the Spartan phalanxes from the previous movie, it’s just not the same.

In the end, this film left me with a disappointed look upon my face. I desperately wanted “300: Rise of an Empire” to duplicate that sense of awe and wonderment that I had plastered on my mug after watching the first film. Instead, it was replaced with a puzzled expression and a slew of questions.

Why did they decide to make this film eight years later? What was the point?

The thing is, when you start asking these (and other) questions during a film that you’re supposed to just take for granted and enjoy, you’re left with an unwinnable battle.

Maybe they should have made the sequel about that.

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