7 years after the release of Zack Snyder's take on the 300 graphic novel by Frank Miller comes a wrap-around sequel 300: Rise of an Empire directed by Noam Murro. Starting after the end of the previous film before flashing back to before, this sequel begins after the end of the first film, before flashing back to before the beginning and ending after the start. If that sounds complicated, it isn't really. Basically while Gerard Butler is being all muscular and shouty a band of other Greeks (less muscular) led by the not-so-imposing figure of Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) are trying to take on man-God Xerxes' (Rodrigo Santoro) right-hand woman Artemisia (Eva Green) in an epic naval clash.
Where the original 300 was all blood and thunder and had more rippling six-packs than you can shake a severed limb at, Rise of an Empire gives us the more cultured side of the Greek States, including a glimpse at the ineffectual parliament. A bunch of stuffy men, far removed from the 'oracles' and 'beasts' of the original, they are constantly trying to barter a peace treaty with the psychotic giant man who thinks he's a God. Thankfully Themistokles, a war hero and the man who slayed Xerxes' father King Darius is on hand to force them into action.
Told through a conventional voice-over (Lena Headey) flashback we see Xerxes go on a personal quest into the desert to ascend from mere boy to a God-on-Earth. As impressive as this is, it is the naval general and all-round nutcase Artemisia who steals the show. Eva Green's performance is a rage-filled tour de force, with her brutality matched only by her will for vengeance. In a sex scene involving her, you're unsure whether she's enjoying it or trying to inflict as much pain on the other person as possible. It's entirely possible that she's doing both, but that remains one of the more visually arresting scenes in the whole film.
Her performance gives the whole of Rise of an Empire a much-needed jolt of charisma, as she stalks the screen like a gaunt vampiric psychopath. If the original was rippling with homo-eroticism, this one brings the women front and centre and reminds us that you don't need to have huge biceps to be an effective fighter. And boy is there fighting.
Everything appears to have been turned up to 11 on the shock scale, with bloody violence shot in a slow-quick-slow fashion. The soundtrack, a pumping and thumping electro-rock monstrosity both distracts and compels. As an audience you know that it's silly, but there's just enough creativity in the carnage to keep your attention. It takes a bold director to have a horseback scene in the middle of a naval battle, but it's a testament to 300: Rise of an Empire that it doesn't feel out of place.
The strange twist in the tale while watching 300: Rise of an Empire is that even if you're not a fan of the original, you'll find yourself missing the 300 Spartans. Gerard Butler's career may have taken a complete nosedive, but his performance as Leonidas really was a landmark moment for him and he and the rest of his merry band are sorely missed in the action scenes, replaced on the Greek side by a bunch of two-dimensional loincloths.
Fans of the original will find plenty to enjoy in the '300 on steroids' approach and it nicely sets up a rousing finale. For everyone else there are enough moments of genuine ingenuity to stop it being a complete shambles, but remember to switch your brain off at the door and prepare for a visual and aural beating. Sparta this isn't.
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